Long-awaited figures revealed this week finally showed for the first time the rates of Oxbridge entry on a school-by-school basis. The shocking statistics unveil an enormous divide between state school and private school entry, with just five schools sending more pupils to Oxbridge over a three year period than nearly 2000 others put together.
Those five include elite private schools Eton, Westminster, and St Paul’s Girls and Boys. The figures, released by the Sutton Trust charity, were most shocking because they revealed that the private schools getting vastly greater numbers of pupils into Oxbridge often had very similar A-level results to corresponding state schools with much lower levels of Oxbridge entry.
Old Oxbridge Excuses Disproved
It has long been the defence of Oxford and Cambridge Universities that the reason for their poor state: private pupil ratio is not their own admissions process, but a failure on the part of the state school system to provide students with high enough A level grades to win Oxbridge places. Yet this data blows that long-accepted argument out of the picture, provoking a high level of concern about private school bias in the Oxbridge admissions system.
The data showed that for schools with an average of 851-900 A-level points per student (900 points being equivalent to 3 ‘A’ grades), 50% of private school pupils gained places at “highly selective universities” compared to just 32% from state schools.
The figures raise serious questions about the Oxbridge interview process. Admissions tutors claim to look vigilantly for signs of promise from state school pupils who may not have achieved quite as highly as their independent school peers. Instead the charity’s findings seem to suggest that private school pupils, drilled and prepared to perfection with hours of one-to-one interview practice, are given an unfair advantage over state school pupils who have achieved the same A-level grades.
Is it as Bad as it Sounds?
There are two important mitigating factors to be considered when analysing the data collected by the Sutton Trust. The first is that the data showed that independent schools with higher Oxbridge success rates also put in a greater number of applications than their similarly achieving state counterparts. This might shift the cause of the discrepancy away from the Oxbridge admissions tutors and onto the state school system, where bright applicants are perhaps less encouraged to apply for top universities than they might be.
The second discrepancy, vociferously pointed out by the elite Russell Group of Universities, and supported by Professor Anna Vignoles from the Institute of Education, is that despite having a similar grade-point average, schools may still have vastly different grades per pupil, which could affect Oxbridge entry chances. For example, one school with an 851-900 point average may have a handful of excellent pupils with fantastically high grades, with the rest achieving much lower, whilst another school with the same average may have a more consistent group of average results, thereby getting fewer pupils into Oxbridge. It is also true that many state school pupils are less clearly informed about the importance of avoiding ‘soft’ subjects like business studies and photography at A-level, which could account for high grades but fewer Oxbridge places.
However, the enormity of the state: private school Oxbridge divide is such that even taking these discrepancies into account in no way negates the statistics; it merely lessens the gap. As Vignoles admits; “In our research not all of that gap disappears even when you account for subject and choice at A-level”.
These damning revelations come at the worst possible time for the government, just as they are desperately fighting to insist that their new £9000 tuition fees policy will not disadvantage students from poorer backgrounds in getting to university. Amidst accusations of a rich-biased new policy that will send higher education “back into the dark ages” with the return of the old university: polytechnic divide, these figures should be taken very seriously indeed.