Oxbridge elite: still the posh and unsporty?

3rd September 2010 at 01:00

Yes, Oxbridge is still the preserve of the privileged ("Is Oxbridge still a preserve of the posh?", TES Magazine, August 27). This comes, I think, as a result of several inter-related issues.

I worked in a leading independent school whose academic prowess was matched by sound Oxbridge preparation. There were talks, mentors, visits from admissions tutors, mock interviews, extra classes, long research essays assigned over the summer, suggested reading lists to widen students' knowledge, debating societies, and files in the library containing probable interview questions for each subject area with write-ups from the school's Oxbridge alumni, which included several of the teaching staff. It was not surprising that on average nearly 50 per cent of its students were accepted into Oxbridge every year. It might have been higher had more not applied to the US. Either way, top universities were seen as accessible and available. It was part of the school's make-up.

Juxtapose this with the average state school which may not have experience of Oxbridge and, for some students, no history of higher education. State schools are beset by targets and undermined by a resulting drive towards mediocrity which favours as many grade Cs as possible, nor is there much interest in where their students end up. In this context, there is little time for teachers to run extra classes if they aren't for revision or to mark pieces of work which fall outside the curriculum, even if it could stretch and further develop students' analytical and research skills - essential for high-level academic pursuits. Similarly, "soft skills" gained from charity work or the Duke of Edinburgh's Award are important for building character and confidence which can be transferred to all situations, including tutorials at Oxford. It's not having them on a personal statement that makes the difference.

The focus in the state sector is not on these things in the way that it is in private schools. It is not allowed to be.

This issue needs to be addressed by the Government, universities and schools. If we are to improve social mobility, and if every child does matter, top universities such as Oxford and Cambridge must reach out to state schools more than they have. That will mean visiting them, probably more than once, to remove barriers and play a part in bridging the divide earlier on.

Joanne Dwyer, Orpington, Kent.

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