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Chris McGovern: Favouritism for badly educated state pupils is no answer to the private sector’s Oxbridge dominance


Only 50 pupils on free school meals made it into Oxford or Cambridge according to the most up-to-date statistics covering admissions for 2011.

This comes after hundreds of millions of pounds have been spent on access schemes to open up universities to children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Private school pupils were five times more likely than state school pupils to win an Oxbridge place. Furthermore, only one in ten state school youngsters won places at the twenty-four elite Russell Group universities.

In contrast, almost four in ten private schools applicants to these universities were successful. Within the maintained sector, grammar school pupils are, according to one analysis, up to thirty times more successful than comprehensive school pupils in winning places at top universities.

At face value, all of this appears surprising; more so when one learns that a number of leading independent schools have been regularly winning over fifty Oxbridge places on an annual basis.

In the maintained sector, some grammar schools and sixth form colleges are sending impressive numbers to both Oxbridge and Russell Group universities but the general picture seems depressing. After all, only 6.5 per cent of pupils in the UK are in private education (rising to 18 per cent for pupils aged over 16) and, yet, they seem to win a disproportionate number of places at these top universities.

The disparity between private and state schools in terms of the number of places won at top universities certainly needs to be explained and addressed. However, is it based simply on unfairness, as many commentators would have us believe? As upsetting as it may be, I believe that the truth about university entrance lies elsewhere.

Too many maintained schools are simply not equipping their pupils with the skills and knowledge necessary for them to be strong candidates. The process should start early, particularly for children in deprived circumstances. Far too little is expected of our primary schools.

The 20 per cent who move into the secondary sector without mastering the basics of literacy and numeracy are unlikely ever to make it university. But the 80 per cent who do grasp the basics are still, mostly, under achieving. They are imprisoned within a narrow and undemanding curriculum that is further cemented in place by too many ‘bog-standard’ secondary schools.

How different is the experience in most private schools. Let me provide just a single example. As head of an independent prep school for 5 to 13 year-olds, I made sure that all my five-year-olds studied two foreign languages (Mandarin and French) with a third (Latin) compulsory by the age of 10. In addition, four further foreign languages (Spanish, German, Arabic, Ancient Greek) were available after school for pupils who wished to study them.

This was the foundation, in just one subject area, on which a secondary education would be built and, eventually, an application to university. Was my school, therefore, an academic ‘sweatshop’? Not in the least! What most defined it was its happy and relaxed atmosphere. It was massively over-subscribed. Maintained schools may not be able to replicate the best independent schools but they should, and some do, lift children out of mediocrity and raise their aspirations.

The reason why youngsters at independent schools are disproportionately successful when they apply to top universities is quite simple.

They have, in general, been much better prepared. In addition, they are more likely to have chosen the ‘hard’ A-Level subjects that universities see as necessary for many courses. State school pupils are not, of course, less intelligent than private school pupils. Too often, though, they have been let down by an education that has not challenged them.

At independent schools last year over 18 per cent of A-Level grades were at A*. In comprehensive schools only 5.9 per cent of pupils gained the top grade and these were more likely to be in ‘soft’ subjects. This makes life challenging for universities. Already they are, effectively, required to discriminate in favour of state school pupils.

Last year, top universities were 70 per cent more likely to give places to state school applicants with lower grades than two years before. More discrimination in favour of state school pupils is coming. Recognising that it will be unable to raise state school standards to anywhere near the level of good private schools, the Government is choosing the alternative pathway of positive discrimination. It is the easy way out but, sadly, in the long term, it is a strategy that will underpin and support educational failure.

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Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern is the Chairman of the Campaign for Real Education. A retired head teacher with 35 years’ teaching experience, Chris is a former advisor to the Policy Unit at 10 Downing Street under two Prime Ministers.

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