Think Oxbridge entry is unfair? Let's talk about rugby

Private schools give disadvantaged pupils sporting opportunities – and they also get them into Oxbridge, says Mark Steed

Oxbridge admissions: Private schools are a vehicle of social mobility, says Mark Steed

The applications and the assessment tests are done. Oxbridge admissions tutors are in the process of conducting interviews and then – potentially – offering places. 

It is probably the most rigorous university admissions process in the UK. And it is also the most scrutinised. The great institutions of Oxford and Cambridge universities are under increasing pressure to broaden access and to open their doors to those from disadvantaged backgrounds. 

The result is that one of the key statistics being tracked is the proportion of students accepted who were educated in the maintained sector. 

The criticism of independent schools for their disproportionate success in gaining places at Oxford and Cambridge is well-documented. The Sutton Trust questions why independent school pupils are seven times more likely than those at non-selective state schools to gain an Oxbridge place.

In response, one of its key proposals is that universities should make greater use of contextual data in their admissions process, to open up access to students from less-privileged backgrounds. 

Private schools vs state schools?

The intention of broadening access to the life-changing opportunities that a good education brings is to be applauded. However, the Sutton Trust and others are mistaken in making the independent–state-school distinction into a binary divide. This is far from the complex reality of secondary schooling. 

Those who are looking to cap the proportion of independent students who gain places at Oxford and Cambridge would do well to consider the parallels with the composition of the England rugby team.

Nine of the England starting XV who played in the Rugby World Cup final were educated at HMC independent schools for a significant part of their secondary education. Yet no one is asking why 7 per cent of schools produced 60 per cent of the team. 

But perhaps they should. Independent schools’ disproportionate involvement in the England rugby squad is not a story of privilege, but a story of investment.

A story of investment

HMC schools believe in school sport. They believe in competition. There are great rivalries between these schools, in many cases going back well over a century. 

Independent schools devote a significant portion of the school week to sport. Typically, a boarding-school rugby team will train between six and 10 hours a week, and then play matches on Saturday afternoons. 

These schools invest in facilities and, more importantly, top-quality coaching, attracting top former professionals to share their expertise once their playing days are over. 

But sport in HMC schools is not just the preserve of those who can afford the fees. As stories of the England rugby team testify, independent schools believe in giving talented young people opportunities, regardless of their background. This is why they award scholarships and bursaries, giving young people the opportunity to benefit from all that history and heritage.

Most of the England players who went to independent schools only did so because they were awarded generous scholarships and bursaries.

Oxbridge admissions

However, the school that has the most old boys on the England rugby team is not an independent school at all. Rather it is a state boarding and day school, St George's, Harpenden, with three England players (Farrell, Ford and Itoje – who later went on to Harrow). 

Indeed, most of the England team only went to independent schools in the sixth form. (Ben Youngs went the other way, leaving Gresham's to go to a sixth-form college to be part of Leicester Tigers' academy.)

As with sport, independent schools invest considerable time and expertise into preparing young people for elite university entry. In the same way that the school first XV has expert coaching and additional time on the training ground, so independent-school sixth formers have access to additional specialist tuition, entrance-test preparation, interview practice and detailed advice. 

It would be ridiculous to argue that the number of players in the England team from independent schools should be limited to 7 per cent. And how would this be defined? Would Etoji be in, because he was educated in the state sector from aged 11 to 16? Or out, because he went to prep school to 11 and to Harrow for the sixth form? Yet there are those who seek to apply similar arguments to the Oxbridge entry debate.

A two-way street

Here, too, there is no clear independent versus state-school divide. It, too, is a two-way street. Independent schools are broadening access by giving academic scholarships and bursaries to pupils aged 11, 13 and 16. 

Conversely, there are the academic equivalents of Ben Youngs, educated in the independent sector to 16, who then move to a sixth-form college and apply to Oxbridge. To see Oxbridge entry solely in terms of the school from which they apply to university is not to take into account all of the contextual data. 

Independent schools are enabling young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to go on to elite universities. No wonder a significant proportion of students at Oxford who are on financial assistance went to independent schools. 

There is little doubt that, just as independent schools can play an important role for an aspiring rugby player making it into the professional ranks, so too can they help an aspiring academic to gain a place at Oxbridge. 

Independent schools are vehicles of social mobility, and there is scope for them to play an ever-greater role in doing so over the coming years.

Mark Steed is the principal and chief executive of Kellett School, the British School in Hong Kong. He previously ran schools in Devon, Hertfordshire and Dubai.  He tweets as @independenthead

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