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Oxford’s problem? The sorry state of British state schools

23 May 2018

4:23 PM

23 May 2018

4:23 PM

Never does the disdain for state education become more apparent than when the conversation turns to Oxford and Cambridge admissions. Not from the distinguished universities themselves, mind you, who, despite what the media might have you believe, welcome all applicants regardless of their background. But from our political classes, particularly those on the left, who seem to believe state school pupils are so universally hopeless they can’t get in without demanding the universities lower the bar.

Politicians such as David Lammy, whose obsession with Oxbridge knows no bounds, demand changes to the Oxford and Cambridge admissions system – such as moving from collegiate to centralised admissions – because it is easier to place the burden on universities than accept the state education system needs to be overhauled (starting with a new generation of grammar schools).

But as the 1,683 state-educated pupils who were offered places at Oxford last year will no doubt tell you, the problem doesn’t lie with Oxbridge, who recognise aptitude when they see it. The problem lies with schools, many of whom not only discourage pupils from applying in the first place but feed them inaccurate information about the applications process. Castigating Oxbridge is simply a sleight of hand intended to obscure that fact.

In reality, the admissions processes that critics such as Lammy denigrate are the very elements that give state school applicants the best possible chance of receiving an offer. The collegiate system, for example, means that tutors at each college have the opportunity to carefully review every application, which is usually comprised of a personal statement, references, marked essays and/or subject exams, grades (predicted and received), and at least two in-depth interviews which contextualise the written elements of the application. No other university in the country – all of which have centralised admissions systems run through individual subject departments – request such a mass of information because none have the manpower afforded by the collegiate system to scrutinise applicants in this way.

When I applied to Oxford from a decent London comprehensive over a decade ago, the first piece of advice the school gave me was ‘don’t’. Once I’d made it clear I planned to ignore them, the assistance they offered me was frankly worse than useless. One teacher who reviewed my personal statement told me it was ‘too verbose’ (I was applying for English Literature) and another suggested I apply to a newer college because it was more likely to take state school applicants (hogwash).

Like many state school applicants, my saving grace was a pair of teachers who were actually familiar with the applications process. One had graduated from Oxford, albeit with a science degree, and encouraged me to apply to his old college. The other was an English teacher who ensured I had the opportunity to submit an essay that best showcased my aptitude for the subject. Beyond that I was left to do my own research, from exploring the Oxford English syllabus (available online) to randomly contacting current Oxford students asking them to tell me about their experiences

Ultimately, Oxbridge can only make offers to those who apply and a combination of inverse snobbishness and ignorance in the state sector mean many students are discouraged from doing so. When one examines the statistics, released today, state school pupils who apply to Oxford do not actually fare substantially worse than their privately educated counterparts. Over the last five years, approximately 23 per cent of state school applicants received offers, compared to 28 per cent of private school applicants.

The reality is the majority of both state and private school pupils who apply to Oxbridge will end up disappointed, but that is the nature of a meritocratic society. The reason this angers Lammy and other Oxbridge critics is because what they really want is not equality of opportunity, which the admissions system already represents, but equality of outcome.

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