Britain, Class, Comprehensive Schools, Private Schools, Schools

Oxbridge admissions: it’s a game of numbers, not class warfare

Oxford University

State schools are failing to get their children into Oxbridge. The Left, incorrectly but unsurprisingly, blame this on the class-system. Could it be that state schools are failing their children because they do not have the same culture of success & aspiration? Asks David Vaiani

Recently, the Sutton Trust published a report in which it demonstrated that a total of five schools have, of late, dominated the annual Oxbridge intake. According to the Trust’s figures, Eton, Westminster, St Paul’s Boys & Girls and, perhaps somewhat incongruously, Hills Road Sixth Form College in Cambridge, sent more of their pupils to Oxbridge than 2,000 other schools combined between 2007 and 2009.

On the face of it, it almost looks like one of those odd one out rounds on Have I Got News For You. Either way, as soon as the report was published, cue howls of egalitarian outrage from the usual suspects. The Mirror screamed that “posh pupils from just five private schools take more places at Oxford and Cambridge than Britain’s bottom 2,000 state schools combined”. Of course, this was not strictly true, given that the school in Cambridge is, in fact,  a state school rather than a private school. But then why let the truth get in the way of a good story, right guys?

As ever, the Left like to look at the question of Oxbridge admissions through the narrow prism of class warfare. Rather than focusing on the real obstacles preventing bright pupils from less privileged backgrounds from achieving their full potential, the Left like to bang on about posh boys in top hats enjoying preferential treatment from those wicked old Oxbridge dons. They rarely if ever ask a more basic question: are state school pupils with top grades more or less likely to apply to Oxbridge in the first place? Indeed, if they had read the Sutton Trust report in full, rather than just focusing on the headline, they might have noticed the following revealing case study: at a state comprehensive school in Cornwall where the pupils recently achieved almost the same results as their counterparts at the local private school, only 33% of pupils with a string of A’s applied to Oxbridge compared to nearly 70% at the private school. Now, as my maths tutor will tell you, number crunching has never been my forte. However, if we assume that getting into Oxbridge is, in part at least, a game of numbers, then state school pupils viewed as a whole are already at a huge disadvantage before they even apply to Oxbridge.

So, why do so few state school pupils with excellent results apply to Oxbridge? It is a complicated and nuanced question. The main reason, however, boils down to culture. At the vast majority of top private schools (such as Eton, Westminster, and St Paul’s Boys & Girls) there exists an all-encompassing culture of success and academic excellence. The teachers and parents at these schools expect their brightest charges to apply to Oxbridge as a matter of course, and the pupils have that sense of aspiration drummed into them from the moment their little well-heeled shoes skip through the entrance hall. At far too many state schools (Hills Road Sixth Form College excepted, one assumes) it is sadly true to say that many bright and able pupils do not apply because of a lingering perception that Oxbridge remains a playground for the wealthy and privileged members of our society. Often this is caused by teachers and parents who convince the children that Oxbridge is ‘not for the likes of us’. There are, of course, other factors, but so long as this ‘poverty of ambition’ remains firmly and stubbornly in place, the numbers for successful applicants will continue to favour pupils from private schools.


One thought on “Oxbridge admissions: it’s a game of numbers, not class warfare

  1. “Often this is caused by teachers and parents who convince the children that Oxbridge is ‘not for the likes of us’.”

    Very true. When I was doing my GCSEs I had a history teacher who did not want me to move on to a better Sixth Form. His reasoning was “Why be a small fish in a big pond when you can be a big fish in a small pond?”

    When I went to Sixth Form, I had a teacher who tried to convince us that there is no social mobility in society. The implication was that effort alone would not be enough for state-educated pupils to succeed and that a revolution would be required to make society “fair”. This is probably the view of many left-wing teachers who *want* to think that society offers no opportunities – so that they can justify their cranky ideologies.

    Surely any clear-thinking teacher who is genuinely concerned about the plight of bright state-school students would lobby for the reintroduction of grammar schools.

    Posted by James Garry | July 19, 2011, 9:45 pm

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