Private school education linked to better health more than 25 years later, study finds

11 May 2016

Private school pupils are more likely than their peers at comprehensives to have a lower body mass index (BMI) by the time they reach their early 40s. They also spend less time watching television and eat fewer take-away meals, according to new research published in the International Journal of Epidemiology.

Researchers at the Centre for Longitudinal Studies, UCL Institute of Education, analysed information on more than 8,400 men and women born across England, Scotland and Wales in a single week in 1970, who are part of the 1970 British Cohort Study. The researchers compared the participants’ health at age 42 according to the type of secondary school and university they attended.

Those 42-year-olds who had attended comprehensive schools had BMIs that were, on average, 1.8 points higher than those who were privately educated – potentially enough to move someone from normal to overweight, or from overweight to obese. Private school pupils also had some healthier behaviours at age 42, namely watching less television and eating fewer take-away meals.

Findings were similar for students who attended prestigious ‘Russell Group’ universities, compared with graduates of other higher education institutions.

These associations between an ‘elite’ education and health benefits at age 42 remained even when taking into account family socioeconomic background, childhood health and cognitive ability, and whether they went on to obtain a university degree.

Interestingly, the inequalities in weight only emerged later in life. There were no differences in BMI when the study participants were still in education.

Previous research has shown that low educational attainment is linked to health problems later in life, but this study suggests that the type of school or university attended might also be important for adult health.

Dr David Bann, the study’s lead author, said: “These findings are further evidence of the importance of the education system to the nation’s heath.

“There are a number of possible explanations for our findings. For example, private schools often have more resources to put into extracurricular activities than the state sector. This may help pupils develop healthy habits that benefit them later in life. Private education is also linked to higher adult earnings, which could be used to cover the costs of a healthy diet and exercise.

“Our findings should be interpreted carefully as they do not prove that the school environment itself caused differences in adult health. However, given continued concerns about school funding and the selling-off of state school playing fields, our research suggests there might be long-term health benefits of improving recreational as well as academic opportunities for pupils.

“To reduce health inequalities among future generations, policymakers will likely need to address inequalities in our education system.”

Read the full paper

Does an elite education benefit health? Findings from the 1970 British Cohort Study’ by D. Bann, M. Hamer, S. Parsons, G.B. Ploubidis and A. Sullivan was published in the International Journal of Epidemiology on 11 May 2016.

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Notes to editors

  1. At age 42, those who attended private schools or Russell Group universities were also more likely to rate their health as good, very good or excellent at age 42, to be physically active, to be non-smokers, and were less likely to have a long-standing illness. However, these findings were almost entirely explained by differences in family socioeconomic status, childhood health and childhood cognitive ability. Only BMI, television viewing and take-away consumption were independently associated with school or university type.
  2. The Russell Group is a self-selected association of 24 leading UK universities. Attending a Russell Group university has been linked to higher graduate income. The researchers included two other universities together with the Russell Group in the ‘higher status’ category – the University of Bath and the University of St Andrews – as they are consistently highly ranked.
  3. The 1970 British Cohort Study (BCS70) is following the lives of more than 17,000 people born in England, Scotland and Wales in a single week of 1970. Since the birth survey in 1970, there have been eight further surveys of all cohort members at ages 5, 10, 16, 26, 30, 34, 38 and 42. The age 46 survey is taking place in 2016 and will focus on health. Over the course of cohort members’ lives, BCS70 has collected information on health; physical, educational and social development, and economic circumstances, among other factors. The study is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and managed by the Centre for Longitudinal Studies at the Department of Social Science, UCL Institute of Education. Further information is available at
  4. The International Journal of Epidemiology (IJE) encourages communication among those engaged in the research, teaching, and application of epidemiology of both communicable and non-communicable disease, including research into health services and medical care. The journal is published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the International Epidemiological Association. Follow the IJE on Twitter: @IJEeditorial
  5. Oxford Journals is a division of Oxford University Press. It publishes well over 230 academic and research journals covering a broad range of subject areas, two-thirds of which are published in collaboration with learned societies and other international organizations. Oxford Journals has been publishing journals for more than a century, and as part of the world’s oldest and largest university press, has more than 500 years of publishing expertise behind them. Follow Oxford Journals on Twitter: @OxfordJournals
  6. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK’s largest funder of research on the social and economic questions facing us today. It supports the development and training of the UK’s future social scientists and also funds major studies that provide the infrastructure for research. ESRC-funded research informs policymakers and practitioners and helps make businesses, voluntary bodies and other organisations more effective. The ESRC also works collaboratively with six other UK research councils and Innovate UK to fund cross-disciplinary research and innovation addressing major societal challenges. The ESRC is an independent organisation, established by Royal Charter in 1965, and funded mainly by the Government. In 2015 it celebrated its 50th anniversary.
  7. The UCL Institute of Education is a world-leader specialising in education and the social sciences. Founded in 1902, the Institute currently has more than 7,000 students and 800 staff. In the 2014, 2015 and 2016 QS World University Rankings, the Institute was ranked number one for education worldwide. It was shortlisted in the ‘University of the Year’ category of the 2014 Times Higher Education (THE) awards. In January 2014, the Institute was recognised by Ofsted for its ‘outstanding’ initial teacher training across primary, secondary and further education. In the most recent Research Excellence Framework, 94 per cent of its research was judged to be world class. On 2 December 2014, the Institute became a single-faculty school of UCL, called the UCL Institute of Education.
  8. University College London (UCL) was founded in 1826. We were the first English university established after Oxford and Cambridge, the first to open up university education to those previously excluded from it, and the first to provide systematic teaching of law, architecture and medicine. We are among the world’s top universities, as reflected by performance in a range of international rankings and tables. UCL currently has over 35,000 students from 150 countries and over 11,000 staff. Our annual income is more than £1 billion. | Follow us on Twitter @uclnews | Watch our YouTube channel

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