Private school pupils healthier later on in life, study suggests

Children at modern school facility
Children at modern school facility - Klaus Vedfelt/Digital Vision

Children who go to private school are more likely to be healthier in mid-life, research suggests.

A new study found that, by age 46, those who went to private school were more likely to be a healthy weight, have lower blood pressure and perform better on one cognitive task than those who went to state schools.

A private school education was linked to better physical health, while attending such universities was linked with better memory performance.

Those who went to a Russell Group university – which includes Oxford, Cambridge, Birmingham, Bristol, Warwick, University College London and York – performed better on memory tests such as recalling words and naming animals, and tests designed to check attention and visual abilities.

The research on more than 8,000 people found attending private school was linked with a 14 per cent lower body mass index than people in state schools, while attending a Russell Group university was linked to a 16% better memory recall and 10 per cent better naming ability.

The study comes as Labour plans to impose VAT on private schools if it wins power.

Research has long linked educational attainment with subsequent health outcomes.

But other aspects of education - such as the type of institution attended - have largely been ignored, despite their likely impact on future employment prospects and earnings, researchers said.

Type of school

The study led by University of College London tracked thousands of people born in the 1970s, now in middle age.

The type of secondary school each person had attended was categorised into private (fee paying), grammar (selective without fees), comprehensive (state funded) and other.

Everyone who had a degree was asked at the age of 42 about the first university they had attended.

The researchers said the findings back up previous studies, which have found a link between education and good health.

They suggested several factors may explain the results, such as smaller class sizes and more activities at private schools; better job prospects leading to more money and improved health; peers at private schools and higher-level universities potentially displaying healthier behaviours; and more experienced teachers and high-achieving peers influencing people’s health throughout their life.

The team, concluded that after adjusting for factors such as whether parents had degrees and were involved in their child’s education, “private school attendance was associated with better cardiometabolic outcomes than comprehensive school attendance.

“After being fully adjusted, attending higher-status universities was associated with better cognitive function, while having no degree was linked to poorer health compared with normal status university attendance.”

The study, published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, included 8,107 people born in 1970, of whom 570 attended private school and 554 went to a Russell Group university.

The authors said the study was observational and other factors such as the influence of family income can be hard to fully capture.

Overall, after adjusting for sex and potentially influential factors, a private school secondary education was associated with better cardiometabolic health outcomes than a comprehensive school education.

Attending a higher status university was associated with better cognitive function, but little health differences were seen between different types of universities.

Those with no degree were found to have poorer health.

Grammar schools

Grammar school attendance was also associated with better cardiovascular and cognitive health than comprehensive school attendance.

However, this difference lessened when other differences in background were factored in.

Researchers said the study was observational, and said it was hard to fully account for other factors, such as family socioeconomic background and cognitive ability.

The study also focused on one generation in the UK who went to school in the 1980s and 1990s amid significant reforms in the UK education system.

“The generalisability of the results to the present day remains unclear, especially given the changes in the education system in recent years,” they add.

But they conclude: “Our findings suggest that the type of education could potentially contribute to understanding the links between education and health… Moreover, if this association is causal, future policies aimed at reducing health inequalities could take education quality into account as well as attainment.

“This is particularly important given the increases in university attendance, in which other aspects of the education experience may better distinguish health inequality.”