What a furore. “Oxbridge to exclude private school pupils” shrieked the banner headlines, following an announcement by Professor Stephen Toope, Cambridge’s vice-chancellor.
Expressions of outrage followed from the supporters of both the independent sector and of grammar schools, which were also targeted.
Trouble is, none of this is quite what it seems. Professor Toope didn’t actually propose creating barriers for privately educated pupils: the headline-writers did. He was outlining the top universities’ efforts to prioritise offers of places to applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds, and acknowledging the potential fallout.
Oxbridge is responding to significant government pressure: but there’s a moral imperative too. Selective schools, state and independent, do much the same. Government’s leaning on them, too: but it’s also the right thing to do, as they rediscover the charitable origins that might have been lost sight of.
“The threat to that minority of schools – and their aspirant pupils – is clear.”
Let’s not be starry-eyed about this, though. The threat to that minority of schools – and their aspirant pupils – is clear. Oxford and Cambridge publish ratios of their state to privately/selectively schooled entrants, and need to ensure that the first figure rises annually. Easy to see how hard-pressed admissions teams might be tempted to sort applications as “state comprehensive – good” and “independent/grammar – bad”.
Barnaby Lenon, chair of the Independent Schools Council, rightly warns that taking an applicant’s private schooling as a proxy for privilege is misleading. Simplistic targets and statistics always carry a risk, particularly when attempting to measure a grey area.
It certainly is grey. Let’s start with pupils from poorer homes who attend independent schools funded by bursaries. That number, arguably a small proportion, is growing all the time. The more successfully private schools work on their outreach, the more they take risks on candidates: will the education they provide to a child who shows promise sufficiently compensate for aspects of their disadvantage? Often it will: yet university drop-out rates demonstrate how often difficulties presented by home circumstances are insuperable.
“The level of academic selection in the independent sector is generally overstated.”
Nor are all those who pay school fees wealthy. The range of private school fees is enormously wide. Families help, and sometimes parents incur huge debt to get what they see as the best for their child.
Then there’s the matter of academic selection. Within the independent sector, its level is generally overstated: to see really ferocious selection, look at the highest-scoring state grammars where ten, twenty or more children apply for every place. Those same grammar schools are frequently criticised for taking few pupils from disadvantage backgrounds.
But some schools blur even that line. London now boasts some super-selective state sixth forms: Harris Westminster, London School of Excellence and Brampton Manor Academy, Newham routinely win more Oxbridge places than Eton (the first two are sponsored by various powerful independent schools: Eton plans to extend the model into the North).
“Many bright, highly-motivated and well-supported children do attend comprehensives.”
The mainly disadvantaged pupils who currently populate these colleges nonetheless benefit from the double blessings of formidable ability-levels and hugely supportive, if impecunious, families. Is that perhaps a form of privilege? And how long before what David Cameron dubbed the “sharp-elbowed middle-classes” move into those settings, just as they colonise “desirable” comprehensives’ catchments areas, inflating house prices?
Many bright, highly-motivated and well-supported children do attend comprehensives. The Times featured one who went to Cambridge from an “ordinary” school – but enjoyed what she herself described as the privilege of being born to two university academics.
I neither praise nor criticise the schools, pupils or families I’ve characterised above, simply seeking to demonstrate how any debate on privilege versus disadvantage is far more complex than the screaming newspaper headlines suggest, and demands more intelligent consideration.
“Government should buy places for disadvantaged pupils at private schools: not to prop them up but to crack them open.”
All candidates for Oxbridge, and for Higher Education more widely, should be considered as individuals, rather than being crudely defined by their school or postcode. Government and universities should find the courage to adopt PQA (a procedure whereby candidates would apply for university places after receiving their exam results), thus eliminating the labyrinth of conditional offers. At that point, the selection system should be sufficiently sophisticated and humane to take account of the background to applicants’ results.
Moreover, government should buy places for disadvantaged pupils at private schools: not to prop them up but, conversely, to crack them open.
Don’t say it can’t be done: it can. The pandemic showed Government can do as/when it chooses. But I fear it will stick to simplistic measures and targets, creating bogus statistics that it can present as success.
And, overall, pupils will lose out.