Is Oxbridge still a preserve of the posh?

27th August 2010 at 01:00
Admissions tutors claim the `old boy network' is a thing of the past, but recently almost twice as many pupils from one independent school were accepted into Oxbridge as from the entire cohort of pupils eligible for free school meals. Hannah Frankel investigates a very common problem

Its dreaming spires have long been a symbol of excellence, but for some the apparently timeless appeal of Oxbridge is starting to wane. At one school in east London, the most able students no longer set their sights on going to Oxford or Cambridge.

"A couple of our alumni are at Cambridge, but more able pupils generally opt for other universities," says Geraldine Naughten, director of sixth form studies at George Green's School in Tower Hamlets. "We want our pupils to aim high and go onto higher education, but not necessarily Oxbridge."

Oxford and Cambridge universities are still seen by many as the benchmark of success for high-achieving students. And this benchmark is doubly challenging for those from state schools, battling to break into the elite.

Every year there are reports of talented young people from state schools who have failed to get into Oxbridge despite having three As at A-level, fuelling a sense that the country's top universities are biased towards the independent sector. The sense of outrage has been heightened this year by the advent of the A* grade - intended to distinguish between the most able students, in reality it provides another potential ground for complaint.

The controversy over Oxbridge access in its present form can be traced back to Laura Spence, the straight-A student turned down by Oxford in 2000 but given a scholarship by Harvard. The row touched on national obsessions: class, snobbery and prejudice, and saw then-chancellor Gordon Brown wading in to accuse the university of discrimination.

But ten years on, little seems to have changed. Although Oxford and Cambridge have each increased the proportion of students from state schools, they are both still well short of the targets set by Government. More than 45 per cent of places at Oxford and 40 per cent at Cambridge are taken by students from independent schools, even though they educate just 7 per cent of the population.

But amid the suspicions of class prejudice, university dons who favour their alma maters and gentlemen's agreements between colleges and independent schools, it may be that state school teachers share some responsibility for the discrepancy.

State schools play a part in the failure of their students to get into Oxbridge, according to Mike Nicholson, director of undergraduate admissions at Oxford University. Some of this is down to a misconception over what admission tutors are looking for in prospective students.

Contrary to popular belief, he says extra-curricular interests will rarely be taken into account. Teachers who have nurtured their charges into developing an enthusiasm for photography or going on Duke of Edinburgh trips may have been wasting their time. Instead, tutors are looking for students with an in-depth knowledge of and passion for their subject.

Oxford wants undergraduates who are enthused, engaged and excel at their subject, says Mr Nicholson - not second-rate historians who also play the flute.

"It doesn't matter if you haven't any friends or hobbies or if you don't do any charitable work," he adds. "It's a purely academic judgment."

As a result, complaints that independent schools have an advantage because they are able to offer their students places in the Combined Cadet Force or the chance to row at Henley are wide of the mark. Instead of emulating the extra-curricular activities available to independent school pupils, state schools should be trying to match their academic opportunities.

This is not to say the independent sector has no advantage, but that the remedy may be closer than teachers think.

Between a third and half of sixth-form boys at Magdalen College School in Oxford get into Oxbridge each year. This is not just because of its historic links with Magdalen College, insists Tim Hands, master of the school, but because of a "heavy emphasis on extending knowledge beyond the syllabus".

One session a week is devoted to general lectures in the boys' chosen subject. Led by teachers or expert supervisors from Oxford University, the aim is to develop individual research within given disciplines.

A quarter of the school's governing body is also on the university college's governing body, and can offer unprecedented insight into what Oxford tutors are looking for. They may also be able to steer students towards colleges where they are more likely to be accepted.

Having the time and capacity for deep learning would be a luxury for many state schools. But those that are able to give their students individual attention beyond the syllabus, especially in "tougher" subjects, often reap the rewards.

Of the 50-odd pupils who applied for Oxbridge last year at Dr Challoner's Grammar School, a selective state school in Buckinghamshire, more than half received a conditional offer. One reason for this is the in-depth support that the school's teachers provide, says David Atkinson, director of sixth form.

"We're limited by time and resources, but our teachers are very committed to helping with applications," he says.

"We're particularly strong in the maths department - the subject we have greatest success with in terms of Oxbridge."

But Dr Challoner's experience is an exception, according to the Sutton Trust, a charity that promotes social mobility. It says that the type of school a pupil attends is a bigger factor than their A-level results in deciding whether they get into top universities.

Its 2007 study found that the number of pupils at the top 30 comprehensives who went to Oxbridge was just a third of what might be expected if entry was based on ability alone. Every year, the so-called "missing 3,000" have the results to go to top universities, but miss out. At the top 30 independent schools the situation is reversed, with more than might be expected getting places at Oxbridge.

It is not a conspiracy, says the trust's James Turner, arguing that there are several overlapping factors at work. One is self-belief - an expectation that even bright state school pupils will not be bright enough. Another is not taking the right combination of subjects. A third is inverse snobbery: well-intentioned but misguided teachers suggesting that their pupils will not fit in at Oxbridge.

A survey for the Sutton Trust in 2007 found that 45 per cent of state school teachers would rarely or never recommend their pupils to apply to Oxbridge, while 44 per cent wrongly believed that courses at Oxbridge were more expensive than at other universities.

Instead of bemoaning rampant discrimination, it suggests that state schools should be offering better advice on subject combinations and the realities of Oxbridge life, as well as encouraging their most able pupils to believe that they are worthy of a place. Interview practice can also be vital, says Mr Turner.

"Soft skills such as better preparation can make such a difference," he says. "The interview can be intimidating if you're the first person from your school to apply to Oxbridge and there are no ex-pupils returning to their old school to share valuable institutional knowledge."

A whole industry attempts to fill this gap. Sucedo, a private tutoring company, charges Oxbridge hopefuls up to pound;320 for mock interviews, subject-specific tutorials and interview skills. Oxbridge Applications, another company that promises candidates the edge, has offered its services to over 45,000 students since it was founded in 1999.

"It's not about grooming or coaching," insists managing director Rachel Spedding. "It's about giving bright students a chance to think independently, flexibly and laterally about their chosen subject in an informed and considered way."

Both Oxford and Cambridge insist they are going to great lengths to attract more state school pupils. Oxford University spends around pound;2.8 million a year on outreach activities, ranging from summer schools to university students mentoring schoolchildren.

Its efforts have borne meagre fruit. The Labour Government set Oxbridge a target of recruiting just under 70 per cent of new full-time undergraduates from state schools, but latest figures show Cambridge managed 59.3 per cent and Oxford just 54.7 per cent.

Student Elidh Brown admits to having many preconceptions about Oxbridge; only an outreach programme helped dispel these.

"I believed all the myths, that the students were all rich and stuck-up," says Elidh, from Sheffield and now studying law with German law at Brasenose College, Oxford. "Each workshop, residential and meeting chipped away at this opinion until I realised that the only thing stopping me from applying was my own belief that I wouldn't fit in."

Academics are also getting better at travelling out to the regions, rather than waiting for state school teachers and pupils to come to them, says Mr Nicholson. But he admits that the introduction to university life is as much about managing expectations as about encouraging the most able.

Over 17,000 people applied for Oxford undergraduate courses for this year. Around 80 per cent were disappointed. "We have to get the message out that just because a pupil is best in their school, it doesn't mean they're particularly special," Mr Nicholson adds.

"There is usually a sharp intake of breath from teachers when we say that, but they have to be realistic. About 30,000 people get three straight As at A-level each year - we can only accept around 3,000."

But the suspicion that Oxbridge has special relationships with independent schools is hard to shift. "I've no evidence, but I hear that at one independent school, everyone who applied to a certain Oxford college got in," says Roy Page, headmaster of the Royal Grammar School (RGS), a selective state school in High Wycombe.

It is not unusual for 20 to 25 RGS sixth formers to go on to Oxbridge each year, thanks to the school's well-honed interview practice, advice on college and course choices, and a frank appraisal of each pupil's chances of success. But just 10 of the 60 boys who applied for this year received conditional offers.

"I'm very concerned about what is going on," Mr Page says. "The pupils from private school are no brighter than our boys. When the universities don't disclose which schools they have made offers to, you start to wonder why they're being so secretive."

Mr Nicholson acknowledges that universities need to be more transparent, and says Oxford is working hard to demystify the interview and testing process. He says the university has also got better at moving applicants around, so that if they do not get into their first choice college they may get into another.

To counter accusations that admissions tutors favour students from "familiar" schools, the university has introduced training courses, including mock interviews, before they are let loose on prospective students. But Mr Nicholson adds that it is no secret that this year was more competitive than ever. A record 611,947 people applied to go to university in 2010, more than 10 per cent up on the year before. Of these, about 150,000 will not get a place.

The new approach is a significant change since Laura Spence's day, when just over half of the 800 Oxford admissions tutors had been trained in selecting candidates. But the human element will always carry a risk of bias, although this is not always in favour of independent schools.

A Sucedo spokesman says that certain colleges favour certain sectors. "Prejudice cuts both ways," he says. "Overall, though, I'd say the system is fairer than it was. The old boy network is dying out."

Yet those from the poorest backgrounds still struggle to get in. Almost twice as many students from the independent Westminster School in London recently got into Oxbridge as from the entire cohort of pupils eligible for free school meals (FSM). Data unearthed by the Conservatives showed that just 45 FSM pupils won places at Oxbridge in 200607, compared with 82 from Westminster.

Earlier this month, higher education watchdog the Office for Fair Access revealed that fewer than 1 per cent of the poorest students - those claiming a bursary for having family incomes of pound;25,000 a year or less - went to Oxbridge.

But both Oxford and Cambridge insist that students' background is taken into account. The Cambridge Special Access Scheme, for example, is for pupils who have experienced personal, social or educational disadvantage. The standard conditional offer, of A*AA, may still apply, but if an applicant's school and family have little or no history of higher education, that can be taken into account.

This is unlikely to reverse the entrenched shortage of comprehensive pupils accessing the most prestigious universities, however. The fact remains that applicants from independent schools are more likely to get into Oxbridge than their state-school counterparts.

But getting into Oxbridge is not the be-all and end-all, according to Geoff Lucas, secretary of The Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference, which represents leading independent schools. "People get too hung up on Oxbridge," he says. "They do not have a monopoly on quality. Good people are bound to be rejected. There needs to be less of a focus on the top end, and more of a discussion about how we can widen participation to higher education as a whole."

Candidates have a choice of five universities on their Ucas forms, Mr Lucas adds. As long at they get the grades and do not become "Oxbridge obsessive", they should not be left disappointed.

Mr Turner of the Sutton Trust agrees that the focus should be on expanding the number of places available at the Russell Group of research-intensive universities as a whole, rather than solely on Oxford and Cambridge. That way, deserving pupils from all backgrounds are more likely to get into the top universities.

But the state of the economy makes this unlikely. After years of expansion, student places will be cut this autumn, and pupils from "non- traditional" backgrounds are likely to bear the brunt.

There is no pact between admissions tutors and independent schools, says Mr Turner: private schools are just better at navigating the admissions process. "The top 100 schools account for a third of Oxbridge admissions, and the vast majority of those are private schools," he adds.

Ten years on from seeing Laura Spence, one of his students, rejected by Oxford, Paul Kelley is disappointed to learn that little has changed. Laura was the second of his students to be turned down by Oxford but accepted by Harvard. The experience has prompted him to encourage pupils to apply for university places in the US.

"Oxbridge is used to dealing with certain schools more than others," says Mr Kelley, headteacher at Monkseaton High School in Whitley Bay, Tyne and Wear. "As it stands, the system fails to take enough account of candidates' potential." Now, at least two sixth-formers a year make the journey from Monkseaton to American universities, he adds.

Despite criticisms from Oxford admissions tutors that she "lacked potential", Laura excelled on her pre-med course at Harvard and went on to get a distinction in medicine at Cambridge. She is now a doctor in the north of England.

But she has also become an enduring symbol of the annual debate around education and class which, ten years on, has barely changed. And as long as state schools underachieve in getting students into Oxbridge, it is a debate we are likely to be having for some time to come.


- Applications received: 14,498

- Maintained sector applications: 6,689

- Independent sector applications: 4,095

- Applications accepted: 3,531

- State school acceptances: 1,762 (59%*)

- Independent school acceptances: 1,277 (41%*)

- Percentage of state school applicants accepted: 26

- Percentage of independent school applicants accepted: 31

* UK acceptances only


- Applications received: 13,388

- Maintained sector applications: 6,123

- Independent sector applications: 4,521

- Applications accepted: 3,170

- State school acceptances: 1,538 (48%)

- Independent school acceptances: 1,328 (42%)

- Percentage of state school applicants accepted: 25

- Percentage of independent school applicants accepted: 29

(Remaining 10% made up of oversees or "other candidates").

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