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'If widening access schemes are so successful, why aren't more students on FSM going to Oxbridge?'

Tim Dracup, a consultant and education blogger at Gifted Phoenix, writes:

How worried are you that so few students on free school meals make it to Oxbridge?

Many different reasons are offered by those who argue that such concern may be misplaced:

  • FSM is a poor proxy for disadvantage; any number of alternatives is preferable; 
  • We shouldn’t single out Oxbridge when so many other selective universities have similarly poor records; 
  • We obsess about Oxbridge when we should be focused on progression to higher education as a whole; 
  • We should worry instead about progression to the most selective courses, which aren’t necessarily at the most selective universities; 
  • Oxbridge suits a particular kind of student; we shouldn’t force square pegs into round holes; 
  • We shouldn’t get involved in social engineering. 

Several of these points are well made. But they can be deployed as a smokescreen, obscuring the uncomfortable fact that, despite our collective best efforts, there has been negligible progress against the FSM measure for a decade or more.

Answers to Parliamentary questions supplied by BIS say that the total fluctuated between 40 and 45 in the six years from 2005/06 to 2010/11. 

The Department for Education’s experimental destination measures statistics suggested that the 2010/11 intake was 30, rising to 50 in 2011/12, of which 40 were from state-funded schools and 10 from state-funded colleges. But these numbers are rounded to the nearest 10. 

By comparison, the total number of students recorded as progressing to Oxbridge from state-funded schools and colleges in 2011/12 is 2,420. 

This data underpins the adjustment of DfE’s ‘FSM to Oxbridge’ impact indicator, from 0.1 per cent to 0.2 per cent. 

The 2012/13 figures were published last month. Numbers of FSM students progressing to Oxbridge were exactly the same – 40 plus 10 – even though the total number of students from state-funded schools and colleges had increased.

The routine explanation is that too few FSM-eligible students achieve the top grades necessary for admission to Oxbridge. But answers to Parliamentary questions reveal that, between 2006 and 2011, the number achieving three or more A-levels at grade A or above increased by some 45 per cent, reaching 546 in 2011.

Judged on this measure, our national commitment to social mobility and fair access is not cutting the mustard. Substantial expenditure – by the taxpayer, by universities and the third sector – is making too little difference too slowly. Transparency is limited because the figures are hostages to fortune. 

So what could be done about this? Perhaps the answer lies with Teach First and the Fair Education Alliance.

Towards the end of last year Teach First celebrated a decade of impact. It published a report and three pupil case studies, one of which featured a girl who was the first in her school to study at Oxford.

Teach First has a specific interest in this area, beyond its teacher training remit. It runs a scheme, Teach First Futures, for students who are  “currently under-represented in universities, including those whose parents did not go to university and those who have claimed free school meals”. 

Participants benefit from a Teach First mentor throughout the sixth form, access to a four-day Easter school at Cambridge, university day trips, skills workshops and careers sessions. Those applying to Oxbridge receive unspecified additional support. 

Information about the number of participants is not always consistent, but various Teach First sources suggest there were some 250 in 2009, rising to 700 in 2013. This year the target is 900. Perhaps some 2,500 have taken part to date. 

Teach First’s impact report says that 30 per cent of those who had been through the programme in 2013 secured places at Russell Group universities and that 60 per cent of participants interviewed at Oxbridge received an offer.

But if Teach First is so successful, why has the number of FSM students progressing to Oxbridge been stalled for a decade?

I searched for details of how many – FSM or otherwise – had actually been admitted to Oxbridge. Apart from one solitary case study, all I could find was a report that mentioned four Oxbridge offers in 2010.  

Through the Fair Education Alliance, Teach First and its partners are committed to five impact goals, one of which is to, in their words, "Narrow the gap in university graduation, including from the 25 per cent of most selective universities, by 8 per cent".

Last month the Alliance published a report card, which argued that, “The current amount of Pupil Premium allocated per disadvantaged pupil should be halved, and the remaining funds redistributed to those pupils who are disadvantaged and have low prior attainment. This would give double-weighting to those low-income pupils most in need of intervention without raising overall Pupil Premium spend.”

It is hard to understand how this would improve the probability of achieving the impact goal above, even though the gaps the Alliance wishes to close are between schools serving high- and low-income communities.

A really worthwhile scheme would need to be ambitious, imposing much-needed coherence without resorting to prescription. 

We should consider: 

  • A national framework for the supply side, in which all providers – universities included – position their various services. 
  • Commitment on the part of all secondary schools and colleges to a coherent long-term support programme for FSM students, with open access at KS3 but continuing participation in KS4 and KS5 subject to successful progress.   
  • Schools and colleges responsible for identifying participants’ learning and development needs and addressing those through a blend of internal provision and appropriate services drawn from the national framework.              
  • A personal budget for each participant, funded through an annual £50m topslice from the Pupil Premium (there is a precedent) plus a matching sum from universities’ outreach budgets. Those with the weakest fair access records would contribute most. Philanthropic donations would be welcome. 
  • The taxpayer’s contribution to all university funding streams made conditional on them meeting challenging but realistic fair access and FSM graduation targets - and publishing full annual data in a standard format.

Apart from the proposed redistribution of Pupil Premium, the Alliance’s recommendations for achieving its impact goal are sensible but piecemeal. They need a unifying mechanism, drawing the supply side together and ensuring that every disadvantaged high attainer gets exactly the support they need.   

Tim Dracup is a consultant and blogger specialising in high attainment and related issues. You can find his blog at and follow him on Twitter at


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