Don’t blame Oxbridge for state schools’ failings

This week, a report by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission heavily criticised Oxford and Cambridge for the low number of places they grant to pupils from state schools. The report shows that although only seven per cent of British children attend a fee-paying school, the privately educated make up 39 per cent of Cambridge undergraduates and 43 per cent of Oxford undergraduates. Politicians and pundits have insisted that more be done to help state-school pupils gain entry to elite universities.

This is a familiar criticism. Educational and political elites have been obsessed with social mobility over the past decade. However, it appears that equality of opportunity has not prevailed at Oxbridge – access still appears to be restricted to the privileged few.

There are reasons for this. Private schools are better equipped to help children attain a place at an Oxbridge college. More Oxbridge-educated graduates, as well as those with postgraduate qualifications, are attracted to teaching in the independent sector, rather than the state sector. This gives those lucky enough to be privately educated access to a wealth of knowledge that may not be as readily accessible in the state sector.

However, as Julia Hartley-Brewer argued in the Telegraph, there are perfectly valid reasons why Oxbridge recruits far more students from the independent sector. For example, private-school pupils may only account for 15 per cent of all A-levels taken, but they achieve 30 per cent of all A grades and 33 per cent of all AAA grades. This means that while only one in 14 children is privately educated, the independent sector accounts for one in three of the pupils who achieve the grades required to get into Oxbridge. In addition, applicants from the state sector are more likely to apply for oversubscribed courses, such as politics, philosophy and economics (PPE), medicine and law. They, therefore, have a statistically lower chance of gaining entry.

Beyond this, private schools offer a wider range of social experiences for their pupils. While independent schools might not be as diverse in terms of ethnicity and class, they offer their pupils the opportunity to meet interesting alumni and people of importance. As seen recently on the ITV documentary School Swap, pupils at Warminster School, a £27,000-a-year boarding school, attend formal dinners several times a year at which they engage in intellectual conversations with adults, many of whom attended Oxbridge. This gives privately educated children a major advantage in the interview process, insofar as they have the confidence and knowledge to engage with academics.

It’s easy to sit back and blame Oxford and Cambridge for not expanding their intake of state-educated students. But it’s far more difficult to explain why this is the case. It’s not that there are secret pacts between Oxbridge and private schools. Rather, it’s that the state sector is unable to offer opportunities to bright, ambitious pupils. It’s not Oxbridge that is failing; it’s the state-education system.

Christopher Beckett is a writer and researcher working in the education sector.

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