‘Don’t diss private schools over Oxbridge entries’

All schools – regardless of sector – should ask if they are doing enough to get pupils into Oxbridge, argues this head

Dorothy MacGinty

‘Don’t diss private schools over Oxbridge entries’

Independent schools will spend time and resources on the university application process, but surely it is the responsibility of all schools to prepare pupils for entry to their chosen university, including encouraging our brightest to aspire to the best universities in the country?

It was reported last week that successful Oxbridge applications from just eight “top independent schools” were greater than three-quarters of all maintained schools in the UK.

While this may be a startling statistic, it also needs to be put into the context of where the pressures lie with all UK universities who are challenged with funding their courses.

University of Oxford recognises that it could do more to attract applications from the maintained sector – a move which has been widely welcomed. However, a fact frequently overlooked in the rush to “diss” private education is that many hundreds of children from limited or average financial backgrounds attend independent schools having gained bursaries and/or scholarships.

These candidates are very likely to have significantly contributed to last week’s announcement on the percentage of independent school success at Oxbridge.

In Scotland alone, across the independent sector each year, £51 million is given in fee assistance by 74 member schools. Nearly 25 per cent, representing 7,201 mainstream pupils, receive means-tested assistance, with 573 pupils receiving full, 100 per cent bursaries. In the past decade alone, over £400 million of assistance has been given.

Across the UK, annual fee assistance amounts to over £378 million, representing 40,402 pupils, or 7.6 per cent of all independently educated pupils.

Top universities 'must take best candidates'

Universities, whether Cambridge, Oxford or any other, face increasing economic challenges. Since tertiary education fees were introduced some years ago, competition is extremely fierce.

In Scotland, where home-grown students attend free of tuition costs, universities now find themselves competing not only for the best academic candidates but also for those who will bring a hefty purse to the banquet. Overseas students generate considerable income for all of the higher education establishments, and they are eagerly sought.

Having a larger percentage of independent school pupils gaining places on Oxbridge courses may provide an opportunity to have a bash at the sector, but it should also pose the question of why Oxford and Cambridge are not broader in their intake. The industry needs to look in on itself and work to encourage more maintained schools to attempt the seemingly unassailable mountain that is the Oxbridge application process.

It is true that Oxbridge should accept the absolute best candidates – they are, after all, two of the best universities in the world. But they should accept candidates on their merit without dumbing down entry requirements dependent on background. Inclusion, yes, but social engineering is not their job.

The Sutton Trust is a rich source of information to encourage pupils to make aspirational applications. “Widening access” is an oft-used phrase. However, much needs to be done, probably by these “gold standard” universities themselves, to encourage pupils to believe that they will belong and prosper in such institutions.

If UK plc wishes to continue to be seen as a globally leading educational brand, we need to provide the very material with which it can work – and it takes a lot of layers to produce a top-quality fabric.

Dorothy MacGinty is head of Kilgraston School in Perthshire

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Dorothy MacGinty

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