It's that time of year again, some admissions statistics have been released and analysed, and the usual media furore unravels. The same problem is highlighted, no solutions are offered, and the arguments made lack nuance. The Sutton Trust report itself tells us that the top 8 independent schools send more students to Oxbridge than the bottom 2894 state schools, leading to news outlets releasing a series of different articles. Whilst the figures are abhorrent, feeding this state vs independent narrative is not helpful, and we should instead seek to unearth the roots of these gross statistics, so that we may tackle them.
Whilst of course headlines are always written to be provocative, to pit two extremes of a radically unequal and unfair educational system against each other is completely unjust and fuels the divide that applicants often perceive, further dissuading them from applying. To compare the schooling of the “super-elite” top independent schools with comprehensives on the brink of closure is nonsensical. The admissions process itself is not the issue, but instead the educational inequality that exists in the UK. This does not absolve us; Cambridge should be working with other institutions and the government to eradicate the issue at the root in the long term.
The binary of state and independent slowly becomes obsolete when grammar schools are treated as separate entities within the state grouping. The disparity even between the best and worst state comprehensives is alarming, with high degrees of selectivity in sixth-form admissions within many of the best state comprehensive schools. Whilst 64.1% of home students came from state maintained schools in 2017, 36.3% of these students came from grammar schools. This means that 17% of the 2017 application round acceptances for Cambridge, came from grammar schools, despite only forming 5.2% of the student population.
Simply put, there are 163 grammar schools in England who in total sent 548 students to Cambridge in 2017. In contrast, there are approximately 3,500 secondary state comprehensive schools in the UK, yet they only sent 748 students to Cambridge in 2017. The success rates of those from grammar schools (29.6%) in 2017 surpasses even that of independent schools (28.7%), with state comprehensives (20.5%) falling significantly lower than both groups. This serves to highlight the variation in the quality of provisions offered by schools within the sector. Social stratification exists even within the state grouping, and it is extreme. Whilst Cambridge has a duty to help mitigate this huge inequality, this is a mammoth task, and cannot be done in isolation. The government needs to support the HE sector with the funding and guidance in order to do this in a meaningful and large-scale way.
It is important to highlight these differences within the state sector, as we often combine this discussion with the need to admit those from underrepresented and most disadvantaged students. This is an inaccurate and harmful merge of narratives. For example, less than 3% of students in grammar schools are entitled to Free School Meals (FSM), with 13% coming from independent preparatory schools. The FSM figure is shocking considering 18% of the local population in selective areas are eligible for FSM. For comparison, only 6% of the same population come from these independent preparatory schools. Similar arguments hold for different ethnic minorities and their proportions.
If the number of students from grammar schools were to increase dramatically, to a point where state-educated students formed 93% of the Cambridge cohort, we would not be admitting those who we often mean to refer to when talking about WP students; those from the most disadvantaged and underrepresented backgrounds. In short, Oxbridge seems an extension of these state-grammar and independent schools, leaving those in poorly funded state-comprehensives with a significant opportunity deficit. Instead of focusing on the state vs independent dichotomy, external parties should be focusing on other metrics of disadvantage and under-representation: FSM, IMD, POLAR and ethnicity for example. If addressed properly, we would indirectly increase the number of state-educated students, in a meaningful way. A more holistic view of the issue is needed.
Cambridge needs to change radically in terms of its admissions intake, and is slowly taking steps to do so, but we cannot allow the media to apportion the blame entirely upon the institutions. The issue is deeply intertwined with the government and funding cuts. Cambridge has made improvements with access even within the past 10 years despite governmental policy. The government’s austerity-driven agenda has led to a slash in funds for schools, with 88% of schools still facing cuts, actively deteriorating efforts in improving access. There are too many state comprehensive schools that quite literally cannot afford to support just one or two students through the Oxbridge application process because it's not financially viable. In contrast, well funded, resourced and equipped state and independent schools, where there are a whole classroom's worth of students to coach through the process, are able to justify the costs of additional support. To reiterate, Cambridge has a duty to help tackle this, whether it be through an expansion of its teacher CPD training or extensive support through the application process, but it cannot be achieved alone. The government should properly fund schools, and allow their staff to take more time to attend these sessions offered by universities.
Thus a huge part of the problem with Oxbridge access runs in parallel with that of the social injustice of the UK educational system, however, this is not the only issue. The report outlines that there are 5000 students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds achieving A*A*A, only 14% of whom apply to Oxbridge. This is an area where Cambridge has a greater responsibility. Outreach work is essential in increasing this number. The university is currently undergoing a reform in the way in which it evaluates its outreach initiatives as a result of external pressure from the Office for Students (OfS). This will then allow the collegiate university to see what really is working, and will allow Cambridge to form an evidence-based approach in tailoring our access work towards the groups in need of outreach, outlined by the OfS. The university spends millions on outreach, so we must ensure that this is spent in the right way and that the right types of programmes are funded. We have seen great success in student-led initiatives, with research showing how the use of role-models in outreach work being significant in a change of outcomes for 16-19-year-olds going into HE. This is particularly pertinent for Oxbridge, where certain groups, such as Black, Bangladeshi and Pakistani students can be used as role models to change perceptions. We need a strong network and sense of collaboration between the collegiate university and its students in order to carry out effective outreach work.
To conclude, we need to move past the constantly recycled divides and take a more holistic approach to access to Oxbridge, and not ignore the broader UK wide issue we face with our educational system and all its flaws. This will be a dynamic area, with the Augar review impending, the contents of which may drastically change outreach work as we know it.