Barnaby Lenon, chair of the Independent Schools Council, is not a man to mince his words.

So his assessment of Oxbridge admissions this Covid year — which saw more students admitted  and a rise in those coming from state schools — is characteristically frank:

“They’re going to find it difficult…they’ve almost certainly not taken the right students this year because it’s been based on CAGS [centre assessed grades] rather than actual achievement.”

First year students, he says, will have done no work for eight months when they start. “They never even revised their A-levels,” he adds.

In an exclusive interview with Independent School Management Plus, he says he believes the students going up to Oxford and Cambridge and other universities “know less than any previous cohort probably since the second world war”. He recommends that vice-chancellors give students a “jolly stiff test” in the first week and a programme of remedial work.

It’s perhaps unsurprising that Lenon, a former teacher at Eton, former headmaster at Harrow and current dean of education at the University of Buckingham — is keen that standards be maintained.

But the struggles of universities in this exceptional coronavirus year are a slight tangent from the official subject of our discussion: independent schools and Oxbridge admissions.

As the proportion of state school students at the prestigious institutions rises steadily, independent schools are naturally keen to ensure their students are not overlooked or actively discriminated against in the admissions process. Last year, 62.3 per cent of UK undergraduates starting at Oxford https://bit.ly/3klMhkI and 68.7 per cent starting at Cambridge https://bit.ly/3mnWCyx came from the state sector.

As the chair of governors of the state-funded London Academy of Excellence (LAE), a selective sixth form college which sent 33 pupils to Oxbridge this year, Lenon has a strong interest in both sides of the equation. Nonetheless, this does not mean he is in favour of chasing targets for state school admissions.

“We believe that state/independent school ratio targets are quite wrong,” he says, stressing that school type is a crude measure. Independent schools, he explains, “have a lot of pupils from poor backgrounds on bursaries,” he says.

Likewise, high performing state schools in leafy areas are usually dominated by the middle classes, he adds. He is also critical of the fact that the state/private admissions data usually excludes overseas students.

“There’s been a huge rise in the number of overseas students and to a large extent those overseas students have displaced UK students from both state and independent schools. They’re concealing the fact that these overseas students on the whole come from wealthy families and many no doubt are at independent schools abroad.

"Excluding overseas students from admissions data gives a false picture."

“It’s a false picture, it’s all very well saying, as Oxford keeps doing, how wonderful it is that we’ve decreased the number coming from independent schools, but they never talk about the overseas students.

“It’s very naïve. So I would much prefer that universities drop any sense of independent/state school targets which is using very weak data and focus on other things that one accepts, like schools who generally have poor results, those areas of the country that have poor results.”

Last year, Oxford announced a target to have 25 per cent of its undergraduates coming from disadvantaged backgrounds by 2023, using a variety of measures including Polar4 data which indicates the amount of university participation in a post code area.

And earlier this year, the Office for Students promised to halve the access gap at England’s most selective institutions in the next five years, increasing the number of disadvantaged students by 6,500 each year from 2024-25.

"There is a danger of disadvantaged pupils feeling that they’ve been admitted because of their background."

Lenon says he believes in the use of “contextual admissions” where different aspects of an applicant’s background are taken into account when they apply and supports schemes that offer catch-up courses and foundation years for students with potential.

Independent schools use contextual admissions themselves when admitting pupils from primary rather than prep schools, he says: “We wouldn’t have expected them to have done Latin or French to a particularly high level but if we felt that a pupil had a lot of potential, we would let them in at a lower level academically in the same way that Oxford and Cambridge might.”

But Lenon is adamant that the last thing state school students want is to have, or be seen to have, a free pass of any kind. “There is obviously a great danger of politicisation of admissions, he says.“To what extent are universities like Oxford being driven by the Office for Students or the comments that David Lammy makes every summer?

“There is a danger of disadvantaged pupils feeling that they’ve been admitted because of their background and certainly I can tell you my pupils at LAE do not want to be offered an easier route into Oxbridge because of their background, they absolutely hate that idea.”

Despite the rising numbers and the continuing obsession with the state/independent split, Lenon does not seem unduly worried about independent schools’ prospects for the future.

“We find that our good pupils are still getting in but the marginal ones who would have got in 20 years ago don’t get in and a reasonable person might say that’s fair enough,” he says.

"It's not helpful when universities bang on about how wonderful it is that they’ve been able to decrease the number of people from independent schools."

And besides, Oxbridge and other top-tier institutions are no longer the only attractive options available.

US universities are becoming a mainstream option, with the main attraction the lack of specialisation in the first year, he says.

 “You can measure this almost by the number of American university advisers that our schools employ. I can remember a time when there would have been none and now most of the bigger schools would certainly have someone and they employ external experts to give advice.”

US universities were now making “a big effort” to recruit in the US, offering scholarships in a way UK institutions can’t.

“And of course, American universities are extremely good. It’s not at all uncommon for a student who’s very interested in computing or science to say they’d rather go to Stanford than Cambridge.

“Gradually over the years as more and more go, it becomes more acceptable to the cohorts following on…they learn from the experience of their predecessors, so it’s gradually growing,” he adds. There was a “slight danger” he says, of British universities missing out on some of the best students.

 “I don’t think it’s helpful when universities bang on and on about how wonderful it is that they’ve been able to decrease the number of people from independent  schools, I know they don’t put it quite in those words, but that’s essentially what they’re saying.

“When they say that I sometimes wonder how their classics departments, music departments, modern languages departments feel about that because those departments could not exist without the independent school students who go…

“If a restaurant is trying to promote the sale of mackerel, it doesn’t do it by saying ‘don’t whatever you do touch our steak’"

“Actively putting off some of the most able pupils, a proportion of whom are on bursaries who would do very well, seems to me an unnecessary mistake.

“If a restaurant is trying to promote the sale of mackerel, it doesn’t do it by saying ‘don’t whatever you do touch our steak’…

“You want a few more to buy mackerel than did last week but you don’t need to run down the people who are buying steak.”

Much of the problem, he says, has been “fuelled by media hype”.

Why can’t we treat all children equally while believing in contextual admissions?” he says.

“That’s what most people in independent schools would say: give everyone a fair shot, don’t start labelling children as being a particular type too early but give those who come from a difficult background a fair shot, that’s all that’s required, it’s pretty straightforward.”