Private school education linked to better midlife health

19 June 2024

People who go to private school or an elite university may have better health in midlife, according to new findings from the 1970 British Cohort Study (BCS70).

The UCL researchers 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 their peers who went to state school.

People who attended an ‘elite’ Russell Group university – which includes 24 institutions known for academic excellence, seminal research, and industry links – tended to perform better on memory tests, and assessments designed to check attention and visual abilities.

The researchers drew on data from a nationally representative group of 17,000 people born in England, Scotland and Wales during a single week in 1970 who are taking part in BCS70. They examined information on the type of school and university people attended, as well as their level of educational attainment.

These educational records were then analysed alongside information about people’s health in midlife, collected from 8,500 study members during the Age 46 Biomedical Sweep. During this survey, people had a comprehensive health check, which measured their cardiovascular health, physical capabilities, and cognitive function through an array of objective health assessments and questionnaires.

Private school pupils tended to have better cardiovascular health in midlife than those who went to state school. They were less likely to be overweight or obese and had, on average, lower blood pressure. Children who attended private school also tended to perform better in a cognitive assessment measuring attention and concentration levels.

Students who went to an elite university tended to perform better on a series of cognitive tests than their peers who attended other universities. In their mid-40s, they scored higher, on average, in both a word recall assessment and an animal naming task.

The study, published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, included 8,107 people, of whom 570 attended private school and 554 went to an elite university.

The study’s authors suggested several factors may explain the links between an elite education and midlife health. Smaller class sizes, more experienced teachers and high-achieving peers could create a stimulating environment to learn. Greater academic achievement may lead to better job prospects, greater financial resources, and improved health. In addition, private school pupils may have access to better-equipped leisure facilities and a wider range of activities, encouraging them to exercise more regularly, and form healthy behaviours that last into adulthood.

The researchers added: “The study 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.”

But they concluded: “Our findings suggest that the type of education institution people attend could potentially contribute to understanding the links between education and health. 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.”

Media coverage of this research

The Times – How avoid middle-aged spread: go to private school (£)

The Telegraph – Private school pupils healthier later on in life, study suggests (£)

The Telegraph – Starmer’s attack on private schools now looks more reckless than ever (£)

The Independent – Private school or Russell Group university ‘may lead to better health’

Evening Standard – Private school or Russell Group university ‘may lead to better health’

Further information

‘Associations of schooling type, qualification type and subsequent health in mid-adulthood: evidence from the 1970 British Cohort Study,’ by Keyao Deng, Liam Wright, Richard Silverwood, Alice Sullivan and David Bann was published in June 2024 in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health.

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