New report highlights state-private gap in Oxbridge admissions

Michael Yoganayagam 10 July 2011

Four leading independent schools and one Cambridge sixth form college together sent more students to Oxbridge between 2007 and 2009 than the bottom 2,000 schools and colleges put together, a report released yesterday has revealed.

According to the report by the Sutton Trust, between them, 4 of England’s most prestigious independent schools – Westminster School, Eton College, St Paul’s School and St Paul’s Girls School – and one Cambridge state school, Hills Road Sixth Form College, produced 946 Oxbridge entrants over the three-year period (accounting for over one in 20 of all Oxbridge admissions). This compares to a total of 927 Oxbridge entrants at just under 2000 schools and colleges with less than one Oxbridge entrant a year. These schools make up just under two thirds of all schools and colleges with sixth forms and colleges in England, yet they accounted for only 5.6% of Oxbridge admissions over the three years.

Meanwhile, Westminster School in London, with termly fees for day sixth forms pupils of £7,618 saw 44.4% of all its higher education applicants being accepted at Oxbridge, with more than 70 students going to Oxbridge each year.

The report also found that independent school pupils are nearly seven times as likely as pupils in comprehensive schools to be accepted into Oxbridge: 5.2% of independent school pupils were accepted by Oxford and Cambridge, compared with 0.8% of pupils in non selective state schools, and 4.2% in selective state schools. The gap was also present when looking at admissions to the 30 most selective British universities – independent school pupils, with a 56% success rate, are more than twice as likely as those in comprehensives, with a 23% success rate, to be accepted into one of these selective universities.

While this disparity was primarily found to be influenced by differences in average attainment at A-level or equivalent examinations, the Sutton Trust also exposes different progression rates to highly selective universities for schools with similar average examination results. For example, at a comprehensive and an independent school in Cornwall, which both averaged 350 A-level points, the former sent 17 per cent to selective universities and the latter 66 per cent.

Possible reasons cited for this include “parental backgrounds, geography, curriculum and information, advice and guidance” . For example, the report suggests that “poor advice” at comprehensive schools can lead to sixth-formers seeking places on degrees for which they are not qualified. Meanwhile, independent schools’ curricula are suggested to be better designed with university entrance in mind, with subjects taught tallying better with the Russell Group’s list of preferred A-level subjects.

The report also highlights that most of the schools that enjoy regular success at Oxbridge have “structured programmes” for candidates for the two ancient universities, including “practice interviews” often at partner schools and “regular sessions to ensure that candidates are engaging in their chosen subject beyond the curriculum”.

Among state schools, the report also suggested a north-south divide in Oxbridge admissions. All but one of the dozen authorities sending more than 2 per cent of state school A-level candidates to Oxford or Cambridge is in the south-east of England, the exception being Trafford in Manchester.

The trust’s report constitutes the first ever publication of figures detailing the higher education destinations of pupils from individual schools with sixth forms and colleges in England.

Reacting to the report, a Cambridge University spokesperson told The Cambridge Student: “The conclusions reached by the report are unfortunately flawed by the adoption of average total points scored per A-level student as the point of comparison between different schools and colleges. This measure conflates quality and quantity of qualifications. It is incorrect to assert that similar total points scored equates to ‘identical A-level results’ when considering entry to highly selective universities.”

She added: “The University of Cambridge is committed to accepting the brightest and best students regardless of background. The majority of students at Cambridge are from state schools, and the University has a good track record of taking students from across the state sector – from 1,245 different state schools and colleges in the last three years.”

CUSU President, Rahul Mansigani, told TCS: “Cambridge has a fair and transparent admissions process – the University has made great strides in widening participation in recent years, but we must keep the pressure up to ensure that the best and brightest apply no matter what their background. The challenge of higher fees can only be overcome by the University offering generous financial support and spending enough on Access and Widening Participation”.

Michael Yoganayagam