The unpleasant truth behind Oxford entrance statistics

Times Higher Education recently published an article declaring that only 1 in 1000 children on free school meals get places at Oxbridge. These new statistics are all part of a war between the Department for Education and BIS (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) over who should have control over universities: they currently lie with BIS, but Michael Gove wants to bring them within his empire. Despite being a political football, these statistics should worry anyone who cares about access to this university.

The heart of the problem is an attainment gap of grim proportions. The average successful Oxford applicant has 5 or more A*s at GCSE, so let’s take as a minimum that they would certainly need to have the 5 A*-C grades including English & Maths that the Government worries about. In 2013, 33% of children on free school meals achieved that, against the national average of 58%. So a much smaller proportion of these children have the grades to even be in the game.

We’ve all heard the rumours about tutors who still select based on filling out the College’s 1st XI, but the truth is that even if every tutor were a perfect progressive educator who simply wanted to choose the best candidates from those who apply, many bright young people in Britain today are never going to get anywhere near the competition for a place at Oxford.

In reality, the problem is actually that our society has massive structural inequalities, an entrenched class system, and an education system that gives £100m tax breaks to expensive private schools to provide a world-class education to the richest people in Britain. The education system and our whole society are letting the poorest children in Britain down, badly.

Does this not make you angry? It makes me incredibly angry. I’m tired of the rhetoric that says Oxford is the centre of the problem. There are certainly serious problems in this University, not least the issues so effectively raised by the ‘I Too Am Oxford’ Campaign, but what we really need to build is a student movement that is angrier about the inequalities embedded in our education system and in our society.

I’m about to start a year as Vice President (Access & Academic Affairs) at OUSU: it’s genuinely going to be in my job description ‘to work to ensure that the brightest students apply to study at Oxford regardless of background’. I find that incredibly exciting, but clearly the problems I have outlined above are not going away. There is a limit to what can be achieved in Oxford: the University doesn’t have the resources, power, or time to achieve the change we need.

If, like me, you want this University to be truly open to everyone, then you need to get angrier. Students need to work more with the national charities that are on the ground working with the most disadvantaged young people in Britain. We also need, though, to find new ways to influence the political debate, lobbying MPs, working with the NUS, campaigning through social media and using the power and voice that being Oxford students gives us. I don’t have a complete plan yet, but if you agree, this is an invitation to join me in saying to politicians, to policymakers, to vice-chancellors, that we are angry that no-one is saying that our educational system is broken and can never truly produce the objective Oxford is being asked to achieve on its own: a level playing field for children, regardless of background.

There will be people who say that the student movement using its voice to fight the structures of inequality in Britain is too political, or, as with ‘I Too Am Oxford’, that raising these issues has access implications. To the charge of being too political, I say: politics is how we achieve change in a democracy. If we as students want real change that creates a school system at the end of which all the brightest children in Britain are in a position to apply for Oxford, we need to get political. As for the access implications, I believe disadvantaged young people in this country will be inspired and encouraged by the solidarity students are showing with them.

I’m ready for a year that supports, continues and expands the amazing work Oxford students already do inspiring individual children on school visits through the Target Schools Roadshows, on Pathways study days, or through #oxtweet, or any of the other amazing access projects running in Oxford. Those projects have a vital role in raising aspiration, busting some of the myths about this University and showing children all over Britain that Oxford could be for them. Anyone who says those projects don’t matter has clearly never seen the extraordinary impact they can have on the individual children who attend.

I’m also ready for a year in which the Vice President (Access & Academic Affairs), OUSU and the whole student movement embrace a fundamentally political agenda and get better at saying: we are angry at the devastating consequences of long-term inequality in Britain. We all agree, I hope, that we want an education at Oxford to be truly available to all. Let’s also agree that for that to happen this country needs to become a much more equal society, and start making our new, angry voice heard.

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PHOTO/Tejvan Pettinger