Intended for healthcare professionals


Private school pupils still disproportionately represented in medical colleges

BMJ 2013; 347 doi: (Published 01 October 2013) Cite this as: BMJ 2013;347:f5964
  1. Caroline White, freelance journalist
  1. 1London

Private school pupils continue to be disproportionately represented among medical students, show figures from the Higher Education Statistics Authority.

A quarter of medical students in the first year of their first degree have had a private school education, despite these schools educating just 7% of pupils across the UK.1 From 2007-08 to 2011-12 the proportion of medical students who had been privately educated fell by just one percentage point, from 26.9% to 25.9%.

Over the same period the proportion of students of white ethnic background rose from 71.3% to 72.5% and that of students of Asian ethnic background fell from 20.6% to 18.9%. The proportion of medical students of black ethnic background rose from 2.5% in 2007-08 to 2.8% in 2011-12.

The authority’s data show that there were 7165 first degree medical students in 2007-08 and 7670 in 2011-12.

Commenting on the figures, David Johnson, chief executive officer of the Social Mobility Foundation, which helps high achievers from low income backgrounds enter professional careers, said that the figures masked barriers that particular groups faced in gaining access to medicine.

He said, “Young people from low income backgrounds often face barriers in terms of obtaining work experience which they cannot get without connections (yet which plays a key role in applications); in attending low attaining schools and not having their academic results placed in their proper context; and in facing a complicated set of entrance procedures and aptitude tests, which are not monitored for impact by socioeconomic background.”

These factors had contributed to medicine becoming a closed shop, he said, and a profession in which “an increasing number of entrants have parents who work within it.”

Harrison Carter, who co-chairs the BMA’s Medical Student Committee, said that medicine was “still not as representative as it should be.” He said, “It is particularly concerning that students from low income groups remain under-represented.

“We need a coordinated response at school age level designed to encourage under-represented students to apply to medical school.”

He added, “We need to especially support schemes that give young people experience of what being a doctor is like. The BMA is already involved in these schemes, but the government needs to provide more support so that students from all backgrounds feel they have the chance to become a doctor.”

In May 2012 a report by the government’s social mobility tsar, Alan Milburn, accused medicine of lagging behind other professions in focusing on widening access. In the foreword to the report Milburn wrote, “It [medicine] has a long way to go when it comes to making access fairer, diversifying its workforce and raising social mobility. Overall, [it] has made far too little progress, and shown far too little interest in the issue of fair access. It needs a step change in approach.”

Prompted by the findings of this and other reports, the Medical Schools Council set up the Selecting for Excellence Executive Group in March this year to look at widening access to medicine. With representatives from a wide range of interested parties, including Health Education England, the Higher Education Funding Council, and the General Medical Council, it is looking into the value of setting up a national outreach programme, among other things.

A spokesman for the group said that it was “keen to understand and remove the barriers which certain groups may find in applying to study medicine.” He added that key to this would be effective engagement with secondary school and university students, teachers, and careers advisers, in a bid “to raise aspirations in under-represented groups.”


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