State school access: the problem starts before Oxford

Oxford’s admissions process has been intensely criticised in recent months by the national media for failing to admit enough students from state schools. The Social mobility and Child Poverty Commission, in a report published in December, found that although Oxford increased its intake of state educated students by 6% between 2003/04 and 2013/14, a further 24% increase would be needed in order to meet the target set by The Commission. These findings, which come in spite of recent efforts to widen access to the University, have led to calls for Oxford to follow the examples set by other leading Russell Group Universities, including Bristol, UCL, Exeter and Warwick, by reducing A-Level requirements by up to two grades based on students’ contextual data. This is not, however, the best approach to improving access to Oxford. Instead, schools and Sixth Form colleges must do more to encourage academically gifted students to apply to Oxbridge and more must be done to dispel the unhelpful stereotypes that dissuade state school pupils from applying here.


Why is it that private schools only account for 6.5% of the total number of school children in the UK, yet in 2014 43% of Undergraduate places at Oxford went to candidates from the independent sector? This imbalance cannot be explained away by talking about Oxford’s admissions process or comparing attainment levels in private schools and state schools, for the main barrier between state school pupils and Oxbridge is rooted in a lack of emphasis on applying to Oxford and Cambridge in comprehensives. Having attended a comprehensive secondary school before moving to a grammar school for sixth form, I never considered applying to Oxford until I reached a Sixth Form which made me feel like it was a real possibility for anyone who could achieve the entry requirements. It was evident to me that my secondary school, despite in many cases possessing equally capable students and a similar quality of teaching, did not encourage the highest achieving students to consider applying.


The accusation that Oxford’s admissions process is failing state school pupils is misguided. Talk of contextual offers, by the media and by the universities themselves, serves only to patronise state school pupils and to perpetuate the unhelpful image of Oxbridge as unattainable, as well as potentially compromising the universities’ reputations for excellence. In truth, the problem lies with the assistance, or lack thereof, given to pupils by their schools and sixth forms in preparation for entrance tests and interviews, with Private and Grammar school students far more likely to receive this kind of advice than state school students. The admissions process is not designed to be intimidating, and to make sure that it isn’t, all schools should have a system in place to support students through it.


This is not to say there aren’t areas in which Oxford can and must improve. The University needs to ensure that the proportion of state school pupils to private school pupils remains similar across the colleges. The Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission highlighted that certain colleges need to improve more than others: Christ Church, Trinity, St Peters and University College are the worst offenders, all taking under half of their students from the state sector.[4] As for access, the University already has a fairly extensive outreach programme, as colleges offer summer schools and send representatives to schools and sixth form colleges in various parts of the country. Programmes such as these, which present Oxford as an inclusive environment where students from any background can come and study, need to be expanded nationally to ensure that as many talented state school students as possible consider Oxford in the future.


Oxford cannot hope to meet the Commission’s targets for admission of state school pupils unless it sheds its false reputation as an elitist institute for privately educated students. This myth must be dispelled lower down the educational system, while Oxford’s outreach programmes should be implemented to their full potential to attract the best academic talent from the state sector.