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Mind your headlines

  • 12 May 2019
  • By Chris Ramsey

This guest blog responding to yesterday’s media stories about independent schools and university entry has been kindly contributed by Chris Ramsey, Headmaster of Whitgift School, and spokesperson on universities for the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC).

Journalists’ headlines are fair game of course, and always have been, but sometimes you wince a bit more than usual, and reading of independent schools’ ‘woe’ about more state school pupils getting into Oxbridge was a bit much. Writing in this Saturday’s Times, an education correspondent was keen to keep alive the demon of sector divide, and depict us as hand-wringing, beleaguered Heads, seeing our pupils are a threatened species. 

Well, since we have just completed the detailed, dispassionate analysis of this year’s Oxbridge statistics, and since the group of Heads I chair spent an excellent day at Kent University discussing contextual admissions, Oxbridge, the Office for Students and in particular a very good report on fair access from the University of Exeter, I can safely say there is no hand-wringing, no panic, no woe. Students from independent schools get great A levels and equivalent, are getting into top universities on their own merit in ever greater numbers, and hold up at Oxbridge pretty well.

True, the number of independently-educated students at Oxbridge is in very slight decline (a couple of dozen), but so in fact is the number of state educated ‘home’ students. Oxford and Cambridge are global institutions, increasingly popular overseas. And since the total number of applicants to these two very special universities with fixed entry numbers is rising year on year, and pretty sharply, every applicant knows it’s tougher and tougher. Not because of bias, because of (healthy, many would say) competition.

Indeed, preparation for Oxbridge is so difficult, and the type of student who will thrive so particular, that many in the independent sector willingly help all students in their area, students learning from each other in a way we should surely applaud. Our latest analysis of a hundred or so independent schools shows that over 1,000 state school students were also helped in their Oxbridge applications in 2018, their success rate arguably rising as a result. 

As for contextual admissions – taking into account an applicant’s background – it’s nothing new, and nothing a sensible admissions team, school advisor or member of the public could possibly see as anything but good. 

There are problems when you try to aggregate individual circumstances though. For example, using postcode POLAR data is notoriously problematic: in cities, wealthy and poorer areas are often geographically close. I looked up my own postcode from my previous job to check, and found that my own children might count as disadvantaged. Which they are not, at least not in that way. 

UCAS has tried to develop a ‘multi equality measure’ in a principled and intelligent way, but that too suffers from the fact that ‘big data’ on students is not universally available, and not available at all to those who are not in local authority schools. 

Finally, our own analysis of bursary-funded students at independent schools turned out to be difficult and unreliable, since most schools are understandably sensitive in who they tell about financial help: sometimes even the pupil doesn’t know!

Social mobility is important and access to the best universities must be fair. But social mobility is a continuum. A refugee (we have had them at my school) does not suddenly get an ‘advantage’ switched on at 16 because he spends two years in an independent school. A wealthy youngster at a leafy academy is not disadvantaged because he or she is at a state school, nor does the articulate family background disappear when he or she applies to UCAS. 

That’s why metrics are good, but targets dangerous. Most universities’ access statements are nuanced and careful, to the irritation of big policy thinkers, but to the good fortune and fair life chances of applicants. Universities are, thankfully, independent in their admissions policies, wary of government control and its change-with-the-wind priorities, determined to identify who will best thrive, and (by the way) increasingly determined to support them so that they do. In that last endeavour above all, they deserve and need our support, not stone-throwing. 

1 comment

  1. BeckySW10 says:

    It would be helpful for parents to hear the universities themselves respond to this debate. Parents greatly appreciate meritocracy in examination results and thereafter university admissions, whether state or private.

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