Oxbridge applications ‘like a secret game’, say heads

19th February 2016 at 00:00
State schools wishing to get students into ancient universities share ways of playing the system

Social mobility charity the Sutton Trust touched a nerve this month, when it branded the processes for students applying to study at the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge as “intimidating and complex”.

The University of Oxford scolded the trust for “perpetuating the myths” that deterred bright teenagers from deprived backgrounds from applying. The University of Cambridge, meanwhile, called the criticisms “unjustified” (bit.ly/Suttonresearch).

But the proportion of state-school Oxbridge undergraduates is creeping up only slowly, and, at around 60 per cent overall, progress is nowhere near as fast as critics demand.

The universities claim that not enough good candidates are applying from state schools and deprived backgrounds. But could their admissions procedures be putting students off?

To get a sense of what is really happening, TES talked to headteachers who have had recent success with Oxbridge applications.

James Handscombe, principal of Harris Westminster Sixth Form, a free school, believes that the situation has dramatically improved. But he said that there was still a sense of “a secret game that no one knows about” in Oxbridge admissions.

If it is a game, his sixth-form free school – backed by the prestigious, private Westminster School – has played it successfully; 10 of its students have had offers this year.

Mr Handscombe says the early deadline for applications – criticised by the Sutton Trust – is “a non-issue”. But he is in favour of scrapping the system whereby students state a preference for one college or another.

‘We need transparency’

The headteacher said that some colleges had differing attitudes to state school pupils and the whole system lacked transparency. But a Cambridge spokesman defended the university’s policy of asking students to choose between colleges, stating that its pooling of applications ensured that all students of the same standard had “an equal chance”.

Mr Handscombe suggested that it was possible for schools to make “strategic” applications for low-demand subjects where students have a greater statistical chance of getting an offer. In 2014, for example, 43 per cent of pupils applying to read Angle-Saxon Norse and Celtic at Cambridge won a place; compared with just 15 per cent in engineering.

Peter Kent, headteacher of Lawrence Sheriff School in Rugby, is against this tactic and encourages his students to “go where the joy is” when they are choosing the subject that they want to study.

And an Oxford spokeswoman warned that it was a “risky” strategy, as the pool of students applying for less popular subjects could be very strong. Mr Kent believes that Oxbridge colleges have worked hard to reach out to the state sector, and he has much greater faith in the system now than when he was a young man applying and failing to get into Oxbridge. “When comparing it to applying in the 70s and 80s, it really was a secret garden, horribly complicated. I had to sit an exam in Latin; my goodness, it was forbidding,” he recalled.

“We have 15 to 20 [students] apply and only four or five will get in. We don’t see it as unreasonable or unfair now.”

John Weeks, head at the London Academy of Excellence in Newham – another state sixth-form college linked to public schools – says that for schools with little experience of sending pupils to Oxbridge, the whole process could seem “shrouded in mystery”. Even at a highly selective school that has received eight offers this year, he said, pupils with high aspirations “don’t quite believe it could be them”.

But the free school, based in East London, has benefitted from its links with both Brighton College and Eton – which can provide a wealth of “institutional knowledge”.

“It’s crucial,” explained Mr Weeks. “When an Eton boy comes back from his Oxbridge interview, they ask, ‘What questions were you asked?’ They have built that up over hundreds of years. We send our candidates to Brighton College for interview practice and that has helped.”

However, sharing this knowledge about how to make a successful Oxbridge application can be a problem, according to Malcolm Trobe, acting general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. “We are aware that some schools are more clued up and there are schools that don’t have that experience,” he said.

“But it’s very difficult to openly share when it’s a competitive process,” he added. “This puts a lot of the onus on the universities themselves to make the process as transparent and open as possible.”


How to compete for Oxbridge

Headteachers offer advice for schools considering Oxbridge applications:

1. Consider establishing a partnership with an independent or state school which already has some success with Oxbridge entry;

2. Subject choice may make a difference: it is statistically easier to get into some courses that are in lower demand. But remember, the universities advise against this as the field of applicants for such subjects can be very strong.

3. Seek out opportunities for interview practice. It helps for students to have an interview with someone they have not already met, perhaps from a neighbouring school.

4. Examples of admissions tests are available online. But don’t let students over-practise.

5. Raid the university’s own websites, which are goldmines of facts and advice.

6. Get clued up on the wide variety of summer schools, open days and events for students and teachers: bit.ly/OxOpenDays; bit.ly/CambOutreach; bit.ly/SuttonSummerSchools

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