The Guardian has published a piece by Andrew Adonis urging Oxford and Cambridge to set up ‘access colleges’ which would only admit applicants from comprehensives.
I’ve long been a fan of Adonis. He did more to drive up standards in state schools as a Labour education minister than most Conservatives do as education secretaries. Unlike his partisan colleagues, he has also been wholly supportive of the free schools programme and gave me some much needed words of encouragement when I was trying to set one up. So I was disappointed to see him resurrect this old idea. The last time it was run up the flagpole, five years ago, I opposed it in an Oxford Union debate and my views haven’t changed.
Adonis rightly points out that Oxbridge has a poor track record when it comes to recruiting students from disadvantaged areas like Rochdale, Sunderland and Weymouth. Last month, the Sutton Trust published research showing that just eight top schools – most of them private – got more children into Oxbridge than 2,900 comprehensives combined. But the solution isn’t to create special colleges that only admit applicants from comprehensives. Rather, it is to raise standards in those 2,900 schools.
If Oxford and Cambridge followed Adonis’s advice, they would effectively be saying that children at comprehensives can never compete on a level playing field. Indeed, Adonis says precisely this in his article. Educational standards are so high at ‘top’ private schools and grammar schools, he says, that comprehensives can never hope to match them. That is profoundly demoralising to those of us trying to raise standards in non-selective state schools and who used to regard Adonis as one of our champions. Comprehensives will only appeal to people from all walks of life, including the professional elite, if the education they’re providing is every bit as good as that at ‘top’ schools. That won’t happen if Oxford and Cambridge hold them to a lower standard.
Adonis says this proposal is no different from all-women colleges, but he neglects to say that these are on their way out. When I was at Oxford, there were three women-only colleges — Somerville, St Hughes and St Hilda’s — but all of them now admit men. One of the reasons was that, being single sex, they struggled to attract good applicants. Bright, ambitious women didn’t want people to think they’d only got into Oxford because of positive discrimination, and I suspect state-school-only colleges would have difficulty attracting the best applicants from comprehensives for the same reason.
Adonis says it’s nonsense to think his new ‘access colleges’ wouldn’t perform as well as the existing ones. “The idea that 3,000 state schools can’t produce a few hundred able Oxbridge students, with the right encouragement and extra support, is farcical,” he writes. “A century ago they said that about women.”
But the fact is, the three remaining women-only Cambridge colleges do struggle to compete. One is second from bottom of the Tompkins Table (the Cambridge University league table), and another is fourth from bottom. The best performer is Newnham, which is ranked 22nd out of 29. That’s hardly a ringing endorsement of positive discrimination. This isn’t because women don’t have the intellectual firepower to compete with men. Rather, it’s because these colleges struggle to attract the most intellectually able applicants and the same would be true of Adonis’s colleges.
It’s also worth noting that since Oxford phased out single-sex colleges, the percentage of women admitted to the university hasn’t gone down; in 2017, Oxford admitted more UK-domiciled female undergraduates than men.
One of the most unattractive things about Adonis’s proposal is that it would reinforce the misconception that Oxbridge is a bastion of class privilege. Suppose a handful of Oxbridge colleges became comprehensive-school-only. The inevitable consequence is that all the other colleges would become just that bit posher. Not only would that be undesirable in its own right, it would confirm the impression among potential applicants from comprehensives that Oxford and Cambridge are the last redoubts of the English class system where people like them are treated like second-class citizens.
Adonis’s proposal would only exacerbate the problem. The main reason kids from comprehensives are under-represented at Oxbridge is because not enough of them apply. In 2017, 35 per cent of UK Oxford applications were from the independent sector, in spite of private schools educating just seven per cent of the British population. During my time as an Oxford undergraduate, I joined an outreach scheme that involved travelling to comprehensives in areas like Rochdale, Sunderland and Weymouth and trying to persuade sixth-formers to apply. The most common reaction was that Oxford was for posh people — not the likes of them. I did my best to counter this impression by talking about the state-school boys and girls who were thriving at Oxford, as well as pointing out that the quality of the teaching was second to none. It rarely did any good. They were convinced they’d be out of their comfort zone. If Adonis’s ‘access colleges’ had existed back then, and I was able to tell them that they could apply to special institutions within Oxford that only admitted kids from disadvantaged backgrounds, that would hardly have dispelled their anxiety. On the contrary, they’d have worried that that would make them stand out even more.
I thought this prejudice was the legacy of Brideshead Revisited, broadcast a few years earlier. But this attitude still persists today and applies as much to Cambridge as it does to Oxford. I blame people like Lord Adonis, who continue to attack Oxbridge for being ‘elitist’. State-school-only colleges wouldn’t dismantle this myth; they would perpetuate it.