But aren’t those private schools academically selective, which means, naturally, that more of their students will be brainy enough to apply to Oxbridge? Well, yes, if by academically selective you mean the people who attend are typically able to afford private tuition to perfect their verbal reasoning. Add to that that the 11-plus is a flawed measure of aptitude, let alone potential, and “academically selective” becomes increasingly meaningless.
A modest proposal to protect private school kids’ Oxbridge places – they’re being stolen by ‘disadvantaged students’
A modest proposal for how we can preserve spots at Oxford and Cambridge for the most deserving and qualified candidates
I attended a state comprehensive school in the North West of England and I went on to study history at Oxford. But, don’t worry, there’s no need to apologise. It might have been awful for me, but at least my “grim up North” beginnings meant that I was an absolute shoo-in at one of the most competitive academic institutions in the world.
Diversifying our pale, male and stale institutions has become the hottest of hot button issues of late, with even the Duke of Cambridge (who should know, because he married a commoner) wading into the debate. Meanwhile Oxford has pledged to do its bit by cutting the ratio of pupils from the wealthiest areas of the country to those from the deprived from around 15 to one to eight to one in the next five years. Cambridge, similarly, has committed to cutting the ratio from around 14 to one to around 6.7 to one. The Sebastians and the Julias are out and we oiks are in.
Surely this is a national scandal in the making. Imagine, if you can, the impact of such social injustice on Britain’s education system. Imagine how marginalised these able pupils will feel after, thanks to their social class, they are excluded from true success. The higher education watchdog has admitted that these new targets of state school pupils will “inevitably” lead to fewer middle class pupils getting places (an outrageous injustice, as has been documented). Put another way, the measures will “rob some students of a future to award it to others”, as private school chiefs put it. And, golly, what if this preferential treatment carries on for centuries? Where will we be then?
How could I possibly disagree with the heads of the nation’s most prestigious public schools, who have raised the alarm over this injustice of an easier ride for one group, when it comes to Oxbridge admissions? Clearly people like me, whose parents didn’t go to university and who are from a part of the country where particularly few state-educated students get places, are robbing these much maligned middle-class pupils of their rightful futures.
For starters, it’s a crowded field for private school pupils – far more crowded than at my comp. And competition is stressful. Of the schools that came in the top fifth for exam results nationwide, nearly a quarter of students in independent schools applied to Oxbridge, compared to a tenth of those from comprehensive schools, despite them performing similarly academically. Taking yourself out of the race from the start is no way to win, didn’t they teach you that at school?
But still, let’s get back to that robbing middle class pupils of their rightful places at Oxbridge, because that is what this is really about. Why reward state school pupils who navigate this notoriously tricky application process on their own? All that shows is that they are scrappy. Scrappy doesn’t translate Catullus.
Pupils coming from independent schools deserve a place, having put in time by sitting through tailored advice sessions put on by their schools on which subjects to apply for (hint: it’s the under-subscribed ones), as well as which specific college to set their sights on (advice comes from teachers who have, themselves, studied at these very institutions). Moreover, so very many of these pupils will have endured after-school classes on passing the Oxbridge-specific admissions tests and perfecting that perplexing personal statement. Ninety per cent of life is showing up, right? Private school pupils have most certainly shown up.
Look no further than interview prep for evidence of that. State school pupils have seen a 21 per cent cut in funding per 16-to-18-year-old students in recent years, which translates to fewer teachers and less advantageous pupil-to-teacher ratios. People like me have not been properly rehearsing these interviews, whereas our independent school counterparts have endured much smaller class sizes, even before the intensive interview preparation they’re put through. And that’s before you even factor in the Oxbridge prep weekends – a steal at £1,995 a pop – that some of these less disadvantaged pupils have had to put up with.
What’s even more galling is that, on receiving an offer, pupils from state schools might be given, if some diversity champions were to have their way, lower grade requirements to account for personal circumstances – such as being in care or having had severe disruptions to their education. Those are hardships, I suppose, but consider this challenge: when on a level playing field, state school pupils tend to perform better than their independent school counterparts, at least at Cambridge. So why would we give them a leg up to start off with?
At my own time at university, after I squeaked in from the North, I saw what long hours my fellow state school leavers had to put in, pretty much without help from home, and I couldn’t help but wonder: do these independent people belong here?
We had an annoying habit of bringing our peers down to earth. Once, for instance, we enlightened our peers on the fact that jobs requiring a person to clock in and out still exist. Another time, we broke the news that a taxidermied eagle would be, for most 20-year-olds, an unusual birthday present. I’m sure you can imagine what a downer those two bits of information were to the more protected members of our university cohort.
No, it cannot be borne. If we must do something for diversity, here is a modest proposal: why not admit state school pupils to a separate college, to avoid stealing places from private school pupils. At Oxford, St Catherine’s will do. That’s the one with the ugly modernist architecture. After all, it worked for women. Well, until they got too big for their own blue stockings and demanded to become full members of the university as well as to actually be awarded degrees. Let’s hope that progress will be as slow this time around. Otherwise, the student populations of Oxford and Cambridge might actually reflect the proportion of state schools to private across the country, and we can’t have that.