Public schools still dominate Oxbridge

Louise Floyd - News Reporter 1 March 2010

The balance of students from different economic backgrounds at Oxbridge was criticised this week.

Speaking on the Andrew Marr Show, Michael Gove MP, Shadow Schools Secretary, drew attention to recent statistics showing that on average only 45 students eligible for free school meals win places at Oxbridge each year, out of the 6,000 that are accepted overall.

In comparison, in the 2008/9 admissions cycle, 100 students were accepted by Cambridge alone from public schools Westminster, Sevenoaks, Eton and Tonbridge. However, Labour hit back at these statistics, calling them misleading as they did not take into account students from further education colleges.

Tom Levinson, Head of Widening Participation at Cambridge commented in response to the statistics that “the simple fact of the matter is that the University of Cambridge hosts hundreds of events every year which are aimed at encouraging disadvantaged students to consider Higher Education and Cambridge. We spend nearly £3m annually on widening participation events. Cambridge is for the brightest and best regardless of their background. We just need to ensure that that message is getting through.”

Andy McGowan, Access Officer at Trinity Hall in 2008/9 and CUSU Target Schools Officer commented that “it is definitely true that very few students who are eligible for free school meals get admitted to Cambridge as a proportion of the total number of students. However, the blame for this cannot be placed squarely at the feet of the University.”

He continued: “household income continues to be one of the biggest single predictors of a child’s academic success. In 2007, out of the 30,000 students who achieved 3 As nationally, only 176 of them were eligible for free school meals. I myself was one of the 176. This means that top universities such as Cambridge have a very limited pool from which to choose.”

In 2006/7 Cambridge took 55% of its home students from state schools and 45% from the independent sector. Only around 6.5% of schoolchildren in the UK are educated privately.

Paul Merchant, a student at Queens’ College who was educated at Tonbridge, highlighted the quality of the education at independent schools. “Private schools tend to attract some of the best teachers, and have the money to provide strong extra-curricular activities and sport. Moreover, these schools tend to encourage capable students to apply to Oxbridge, and prepare them very well for it.”

Holly Samuel, a student at St John’s, commented that her experience of education at Sevenoaks was “a productive, success-orientated one. Not only do you have the IB but it is absolutely expected that you have a whole menagerie of significant extracurricular commitments”.

On its website, Cambridge states that “independent school students tend to apply with a mix of traditional A levels well suited to the course for which they are applying; they also apply in greater numbers for less popular courses”.

However, Cambridge continues to work to improve access. It aims to take 60% to 63% of students from the maintained sector in 2010, which will put it in line with national patterns of achievement at A level.

Louise Floyd – News Reporter