Independent schools shut out of Cambridge essay prizes

Newnham College has said its essay prizes will now only be open to state-educated sixthformers

typewriter Cambridge essay writing competition

A women-only Cambridge college has blocked independently educated sixth formers from entering an essay competition, The Times reports.

Newnham College, which previously accepted entries from female students in private schools, said its essay prizes were now being run as an “outreach educational activity” limited to students in state schools only.

The college said that the competition had become so popular, marking the essays was taking up too many resources.

The news comes after Lord Black of Brentwood criticised Oxbridge colleges for “social engineering” in their attempts to raise the proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Former independent school head Bernard Trafford also recently wrote about the dangers of “crudely defining university applicants by their school or postcode.”

The Newnham essay prizes, offer a £400 first prize in each category, with £200 for second and £100 for third. The money is split equally between the writer and their school.

This year’s subjects included philosophy, music, medicine, maths, history, engineering, computer science, classics, biological sciences, archaeology and the Woolf essay prize, named after Virginia Woolf.

David James, deputy head at Lady Eleanor Holles School, an independent girls’ school in southwest London, said: “These colleges seem to be assuming in designing these rather blunt criteria that if you are taught in a state school you are going to be educated to a lower standard than [at] a private school, and special considerations have to be applied. This is unproven and insulting. Ultimately, these colleges are discriminating against young people who had no choice over the schools they attend.”

A college spokeswoman said: “Because of resource constraints, the college [decided] to provide the essay prize as an outreach educational activity for students in the maintained sector, which has felt the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic significantly, and which is less resourced as a whole. This will allow us to offer detailed feedback on a university-style essay to the entrants.”