Subject Choice in Private Schools: A Strategic Advantage?

Private schools have long been debated arenas where socio-economic advantages are either mitigated or magnified, depending on one’s viewpoint. In the context of preparing students for university, particularly elite institutions, the subject choices offered by private schools can provide a distinctive edge. This blog post delves into how the broader array of subject options at private institutions might furnish students with a strategic advantage when applying to top-tier universities.

Introduction: The Context of Private Education

The landscape of private schooling in the UK presents a setting of heightened autonomy and resource availability compared to state counterparts. This disparity potentially sets the stage for different educational outcomes, which may particularly manifest in the crucial decisions surrounding A-Level subject choices. Research indicates that students from private schools often undertake more ‘facilitating subjects’—those subjects most favoured by leading universities for their breadth and depth .

The Strategic Edge in Subject Choice

Private schools not only offer a wider variety of subjects but also encourage enrolment in subjects that are strategically aligned with the prerequisites of prestigious universities. For instance, subjects like Further Mathematics, Classical Civilisations, and advanced science courses are more readily available and pushed by career and academic counsellors in private settings. The emphasis on facilitating subjects, which include mathematics, sciences, languages, and humanities, is significant because they are expressly valued by high-ranking institutions, notably those within the Russell Group .

Comparison of Subject Choices in Private vs State Schools


Type of Subject Private Schools State Schools
Facilitating Subjects Higher enrolment Lower enrolment
Limited Suitability Subjects Lower enrolment Higher enrolment


Empirical Evidence of Advantage

Statistical analyses underline that private school students not only enrol in more facilitating subjects but also achieve higher A-level grades in these subjects. This leads to better overall performance and, crucially, higher university entrance rates. The private school coefficient remains statistically significant even after controlling for socio-economic background and prior attainment, suggesting a genuine ‘private school effect’ .

Impact of Private Schooling on University Admission Chances


Factor Impact on University Admission Chances
Facilitating Subject Enrollment 27% higher in private schools
UCAS Tariff Scores Higher scores aiding university admission
A-Level Rank 8 percentile points higher, net of background factors


Implications for University Admission

The strategic subject choice at private schools correlates with increased likelihood of attending a Russell Group university. The data from recent studies shows a clear pattern: students from private schools are more likely to attend high-status universities than their state-educated peers. This is not merely due to the socio-economic advantages typically associated with private education but also a direct outcome of the curricular choices facilitated by these institutions .

Subject Choice at Cambridge School Online

At Cambridge School Online, we stand by the belief that an excellent curriculum is paramount to student success. Unlike the national curriculum for England, which is often viewed as too prescriptive and subject to political changes, our curriculum is designed to provide students with an academic edge. Top independent schools globally, including ours, find the national curriculum inadequate for those aiming to achieve top grades consistently.

Since our inception in 2002, Cambridge School Online has been committed to offering an independent, broad, balanced, and well-rounded curriculum. We have refined our curriculum annually, ensuring it is interdisciplinary and well-suited to prepare students for advanced academic and career stages.

1. Curricular Breadth Our curriculum covers a wide range of topics and subtopics to foster a nuanced understanding of each subject. Rather than merely touching on a few areas superficially, we delve into more aspects laterally, providing students with a comprehensive education that lays a solid foundation for all future learning and academic pursuits.

2. Curricular Depth In each subject, we explore topics and subtopics in greater detail, aiming for mastery and deep understanding. This longitudinal approach enables students to dive deeper into their studies, resulting in clearer concepts and an increased capacity for knowledge. This detailed exploration is crucial for academic excellence and personal growth.

At the primary stage, our curriculum aligns more closely with the national curriculum, gradually becoming more independent as students progress to more advanced stages. By Key Stages 4 and 5, the influence of the national curriculum is minimal, reflecting our strong focus on enabling students to secure excellent grades through an independent approach to subject choice.



  • Oxford Review of Education Study on Private Schooling, Subject Choice, and University Progression. Link to study: Oxford Review of Education.


How do private schools enhance university admission chances?

Private schools are believed to offer a strategic advantage for students aiming for university, particularly prestigious institutions, by providing a wider range of A-Level subjects. This variety includes ‘facilitating subjects’ like Further Mathematics and advanced sciences, which are highly valued by elite universities and can enhance admission prospects.

What are ‘facilitating subjects’ and why are they important?

Facilitating subjects refer to courses like mathematics, sciences, languages, and humanities, known for their breadth and depth. These subjects are crucial as they are specifically valued by high-ranking universities, aiding students from private schools in gaining admissions to esteemed institutions.

How do subject choices in private schools compare with state schools?

Private schools tend to have higher enrolment in facilitating subjects, which are preferred by top universities, compared to state schools which may have higher enrolments in subjects considered of limited suitability for these universities.

What statistical evidence supports the benefits of private schooling for university admissions?

Studies show that students in private schools are more likely to enrol in and excel at facilitating subjects, achieving higher A-Level grades and UCAS tariff scores. This statistical evidence suggests that private schooling can significantly boost university entrance rates.

How does private schooling influence progression to prestigious universities?

The strategic choice of subjects in private schools correlates strongly with higher chances of attending top-tier universities, like those in the Russell Group. This trend is supported by data indicating that private school students are more likely to be accepted into high-status universities than their peers from state schools.

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