Lee Elliot Major and Lesley Kendall describe how a small cadre of elite schools are tightening their grip on admissions to Oxbridge
Charlotte, a 17 year old from south Devon hopes to study medicine; Josh, from Cromer on the north Norfolk coast, aspires to enrol on a Politics, Philosophy and Economics degree to pursue his passion for current affairs; Annie, from Stoke, wants to be a vet. All three are so impressively clever you could already imagine them calmly batting off Jeremy Paxman’s toughest posers on University Challenge.
But what truly sets these teenagers apart is that they are examples of raw academic talent emerging where you might least expect it. No-one in their families went to university, let alone one demanding the very highest grades.
They are the lucky ones – three of the 1,900 students benefitting from Sutton Trust summer schools at ten leading universities at this time of year. All will have passed strict selection criteria designed to pick the brightest students from the toughest backgrounds.
At Cambridge alone this summer, 500 students will be given a much-needed confidence boost and lots of practical advice on what universities are looking for, as well as inspiring lectures from top academics. Over 80% of these students will go onto secure a place at one of the country’s most sought after degree courses.
Charlotte, Josh and Annie really are the fortunate few. The latest analysis by the Sutton Trust of official admissions data to Oxbridge and other elite universities suggests that the educational divide between the privileged elite and the rest of the population is growing ever wider. The figures indicate that students from the wealthiest families could be pulling further away in the race for prestigious academic degrees, and the positions of power they pave the way to. This yawning gap is not just a problem for our poorest children but also those from ‘normal’ middle income homes.
Our study (trailed in the Sunday Times yesterday) of thousands of statistics published by the Department for Education on the destinations of school pupils across England reveals that in 2011/12 just three prestigious private schools and two elite sixth form colleges produced as many entrants to Oxford and Cambridge as 1800 state schools and colleges across England.
Between them, Westminster, Eton, St Pauls, Hills Road College (Cambridge) and Peter Symond’s College (Winchester) produced about 260 Oxbridge students that year. The three exclusive private schools hardly need introducing. The two large sixth form colleges meanwhile have developed such excellent reputations they have become the choice destinations for professional parents wanting to maximise the chances of their children getting into Oxbridge.
Just 40 schools and colleges provided about a quarter of all Oxbridge entrants in 2011/12 – the latest year for which we have hard data. What’s powerful about these figures is that they show the extent to which a tiny minority of the country’s 2750 schools and colleges dominate enrolment at prestigious universities: a sombre message for the hundreds of thousands of students waiting to receive their A-level results this August.
We’ve published similarly stark statistics before. But the concern is that a small cadre of schools and colleges is tightening its grip on elite university places. A previous study by the Sutton Trust found that for the last three academic years the top five schools and colleges had as many Oxbridge acceptances as more than 1500 schools across England.
The figures show that some 30% of comprehensive schools have at most one or two students progressing to the prestigious 24 Russell Group universities. Separate recentGovernment figures, recently released, reveal that the proportion of A-level students attending comprehensives and progressing to the country’s 30 most academically demanding universities fell from 23% in 2008/09 to 19% in 2011/12.
Why should all this matter? One only has to look at Prime Minister David Cameron’s newly reshuffled Cabinet to understand how much sway an Oxbridge education still holds in determining who secures the most powerful positions in society. Although these new Ministers are less exclusive educationally than their immediate predecessors, 60% of the current Cabinet has Oxbridge degrees.
It’s a similar picture for high court judges, prominent journalists or the most senior civil servants, where an Oxbridge education remains the passport to success. All this would be fine if England’s two ancient universities attracted bright teenagers from a diverse swathe of social and economic backgrounds. But we know despite valiant efforts by the universities, entry into their hallowed colleges continues to be dominated by those from the most privileged families. It means that those in charge of us are not reflective of the people they are intended to serve, or drawn from the widest pool of available talents.
It also means we miss the benefits of what businesses call ‘cognitive diversity’ – having a mixed group of individuals from different walks of life bringing with them distinctive approaches to solving problems. Improving social mobility at the top is not just about fairness but introducing fresh, innovative thinking enabling those in power to be more effective.
Arguably a much bigger social mobility challenge is to improve the basic numeracy and literacy skills of school leavers destined for the dole. But these are not mutually exclusive missions: we need to maximise the talents of all our children, whether academically gifted or not. By ignoring this problem at the top, those in charge are effectively saying ‘we’ll improve the educational lot of poorer children as long as it doesn’t threaten us and our own children’s positions of authority’.
In fact the social mobility arms race is escalating with each academic year as the richest families increasingly devote more resources to ensure that their children excel at school and university. They recognise education’s increasing importance in who wins in the workplace. The same phenomenon has been powerfully documented in the US by Stanford academic Sean Reardon.
Yet despite all this, there are some signs of hope that this race is not insurmountable for talented students, like Charlotte, Josh and Annie, who haven’t benefited from all that extra support. We hope that for these three youngster’s the Nottingham Sutton Trustsummer school will be the launch pad it has been for others.
The latest data also highlight some exceptional comprehensive state schools whose pupils are getting the grades and know-how to get into Oxbridge and other top universities (we list those with more than 3 per cent of pupils attending Cambridge and Oxford below). They are doing this despite school league tables that force them to focus primarily on getting their pupils over the minimum C grades at GCSE. Other schools could surely learn from these examples.
Meanwhile the Sutton Trust and its university partners are extending summer schools to work with state school teachers directly. We are also piloting programmes to support able state school pupils as young as 11-14 years old – long before sixth form starts. We know that there are tens of thousands more academically talented children in schools across the country who could be real candidates for university, and even perhaps an Oxbridge degree.
|School (state comprehensive)||% Students attending Oxbridge|
|The Cherwell School||8%|
|Watford Grammar School for Girls||8%|
|Dame Alice Owen’s School||7%|
|Watford Grammar School for Boys||7%|
|Durham Johnston Comprehensive School||7%|
|Mossbourne Community Academy||7%|
|The Highfield School||6%|
|Sir John Lawes School||6%|
|Lady Margaret School||6%|
|Matthew Arnold School||5%|
|The Holt School||5%|
|The Cardinal Vaughan Memorial RC School||5%|
|The Marlborough Church of England School||4%|
|The King Edward VI School||4%|
|Hockerill Anglo-European College||4%|
|St George’s School||4%|
|The Nelson Thomlinson School||4%|
|The Becket School||4%|
|Arnold Hill School and Technology College||4%|
|The King’s (the Cathedral) School||4%|
|Haberdashers’ Aske’s Hatcham College||4%|
|Kenilworth School and Sports College||3%|
|George Abbot School||3%|
|Howard of Effingham School||3%|
|Chipping Norton School||3%|
|King Edward VII School||3%|
|Wymondham High School||3%|
|Richard Hale School||3%|
|Katharine Lady Berkeley’s School||3%|
|John Kyrle High School and Sixth Form Centre||3%|
|The Piggott School||3%|
|St Bartholomew’s School||3%|
|Park House School||3%|
|Furze Platt Senior School||3%|
|Codsall Community High School||3%|
|Bay House School||3%|
|Cardinal Newman Catholic School||3%|
|The Thomas Hardye School||3%|
|Wootton Upper School||3%|
|St Aidan’s Church of England High School||3%|
|St John Fisher Catholic High School||3%|
|Harrogate Grammar School||3%|
|Hayesfield Girls School||3%|
|Parrs Wood High School||3%|
|St Edward’s College||3%|
|Mill Hill County High School||3%|
|The London Oratory School||3%|
|The Camden School for Girls||3%|