It’s time for Oxford to help transform our state schools

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The reforms to the state education system pioneered by the last government have radically improved the state education system. It is easy to be blind to quite how bad things were; the statistics really are shocking. The basic school leaving standard is just 5 GCSEs at A* to C including English and Maths, and this is perhaps the least demanding yardstick for measuring whether a school is succeeding. In 1997, fewer than half of state comprehensives managed to achieve this for more than one in three of their sixteen year olds. And this is just the basic standard.

Academies have done wonders to improve the situation. Instead of local authority bureaucracies, independent sponsors are responsible for governance and management (the sponsors do not need to put up any money). These sponsors have the vision and strength of will to take schools up to the highest standards. They develop an ethos for the school and have the freedom to be radically innovative. They give schools the self-esteem to become excellent in the state sector. The evidence in support of this is overwhelming. Hackney Downs comprehensive was labelled the worst school in London in the 1990s, and was eventually forced to close in 1995. In 2004 Mossbourne Academy was founded on the same site as an early pioneer of the academies programme. After just three years, more than 80 per cent of its students gained five or more GCSEs at A* to C. This put it in the top 1 per cent of schools nationally. According to the National Audit Office, academies that opened in 2002 have more than trebled their GCSE scores since opening, and those that opened in the following three years have doubled their scores. Pupil truancy rates have fallen much quicker than average. Most indicative of all is the fact that, on average, academies attract two candidates per place, while the comprehensives they replaced were mostly undersubscribed.

But we must not be complacent – the improvements are not finished. As of 2012, nearly 650 comprehensives are still failing to achieve the basic GCSE standard for half or more of their students. It is clear that we still need an awful lot of good sponsors to take over failing comprehensive schools. Furthermore, there is a dramatic disconnect between the country’s top universities and the state education sector. More than 500 comprehensives secure an average of just 3 places a year at the top 30 universities. Just 1 in 15 sixth formers go to these universities from the lowest-performing 20 per cent of schools. For example, Newham in east London has a sixth form college of 2,600 students, a further education college of 1,200 and two Catholic comprehensives with 800 sixth-formers apiece. Yet in 2010 these state schools and colleges together got only 70 students into Britain’s 30 most selective universities. Mossbourne Academy, in neighbouring Hackney, exceeded this on its own in 2011. There is a profound access problem between the bottom half of the state education sector and top universities.

The situation is even worse when we get to Oxbridge. A recent study revealed that five institutions (Eton, Westminster, St Paul’s Boys, St Paul’s Girls and Hills Road College) send more students to Oxford and Cambridge each year than nearly 2,000 comprehensive schools and colleges (more than half of all comprehensives in this country). The five won 946 places at Oxbridge between 2007 and 2009, while nearly 2,000 comprehensives and colleges with an average of less than one Oxbridge entrant a year won just 927 places between them.

It is not enough for the University of Oxford to stand on the side-lines while others shoulder the burden of revolutionizing our state schools. It is time for every single college at the University of Oxford to take responsibility for at least one state comprehensive. Claims that helping schools is a distraction from the university’s ‘core mission’ are totally wrongheaded. Education is the pure mission of a university. Out of all the sponsors who have started the process of transforming the state sector, universities are surely among the best qualified to take a leading role. So far, the academies founded by educational institutions have been among the most successful in the entire programme. ‘We don’t do social engineering’ just doesn’t cut it; what else does anyone do in education?

Nottingham University, UCL and the University of the West of England have already sponsored academies to replace failing comprehensives and the results have been extremely encouraging. In 2002 fewer than 15 out of 130 sixteen year old leavers at William Sharp School in a deprived area of Nottingham left with the basic qualification. Nottingham University took over the governance of the school and the university lecturers, students and members of support staff are now part of the lifeblood of the new Nottingham University Samworth Academy. All new pupils go on a ‘transition day’ at the university. Nottingham students act as academic mentors, promoting stimulating classroom discussion and allowing the pupils to really stretch themselves in a non-intimidating environment where it is not ‘uncool’ to be academic. The university provides apprenticeships and work placements. Over twenty members of staff at the academy are now doing masters and PhDs at the university. These universities are giving state schools the kind of connections and guidance that Eton and other private schools take for granted. After just three years Ofsted gave the Samworth Academy a resounding endorsement in all four categories.

This won’t cost Oxford’s colleges any money at all; the investment is one of knowledge, energy and direction. These colleges have some of the greatest levels of educational expertise in the world. If each college took over the governance of a school, making sure that the board of governors and the headteacher shared the same vision and drive for excellence that is commonplace within Oxford, the results would soon be outstanding. The education of young people, particularly in secondary schools, is absolutely fundamental to universities, employers and indeed the whole of society. This is a project to which many other leading institutions have already gathered, and it is time for Oxford to take the lead.

At a stroke, Oxford can become a real driver of social mobility; a champion of hard work and aspiration over privilege. After all, this is precisely what many Oxford colleges were founded for. The William of Wykeham foundation created New College together with Winchester School. The William Waynflete foundation endowed both Magdalen College and Magdalen College School. Sponsoring academies to replace failing comprehensives would be a return of the old mission to provide top quality education for the many not the few.

For far too long Oxford University has stood idly by while others have taken the lead in the task of transforming our state schools. Now it is time for Oxford to take its place at the forefront of the drive to improve the chances of every single pupil in this country. There was once a time when Oxford could claim that it only took the highest proportion of privately educated students out of any university because the state schools weren’t up to it. This is no longer an excuse. Oxford must now take an active role in transforming our state schools. Every single college must take over a failing comprehensive and turn it into a state school to be proud of. At such little cost and with such inspirational and enduring gains so readily achievable, there is only question remaining: when will we start?

This article owes a large debt to Education, Education, Education: Reforming England’s Schools by Andrew Adonis, published by Biteback.

PHOTO/ Alex Pepperhill