Tonhe is vast Most Brits are educated in state schools: 94% of the population and 83% of state schools A-level. Until recently, acceptance rates at the best colleges came close to reflecting those numbers. In 2013, students in state schools accounted for 57% and 61% of students admitted to Oxford and Cambridge respectively. Admissions at other top universities also favor privately educated teens.
Since then, a quiet revolution has begun. The number of state school pupils taking Oxbridge degrees has increased every year; admissions from private schools have fallen. By 2022, 68% of Oxford’s places will be given to state school students; 72.5% in Cambridge. Since many members of the prestigious Russell Group of 24 universities have long admitted a higher proportion of state school students than Oxbridge, the growth in state school students has been modest: from 78% to 80% over the past eight years . But Hollie Chandler, the group’s policy director, said its members had “ambitious goals” to enroll more students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Two schools in particular illustrate this change. In 2014, 99 students from Eton College, which has produced 20 chancellors (most of them Oxbridge graduates), received offers from Oxbridge; by 2021 this number has dropped to 48. That year, 54 students at Brampton Manor College, a state school in deprived east London, received offers from both universities, up from just one in 2014.
There are several things behind this change. The government has given universities cash to reach underrepresented students and since 2018 has required them to publish plans showing how they do this. Colleges have been bombarded with studies of admissions disparities that are hard to ignore. A 2018 report revealed eight schools had more Oxbridge places than 2,900 other secondary schools combined; six of them were private.
A law that allowed schools to become “academies” allowed greater control over budgets and staff, which led to the development of many schools with very ambitious students. Teach First, a scheme that sends bright graduates to tough schools for a few years, also helps to boost students’ ambitions. It started in London, which is one reason why the best-performing state schools are concentrated in the capital.
All of this is driving a concerted effort by schools and colleges to get students to consider colleges they may not have attended before. Deborah Warwick, director of the Future Academy in Watford, north-west London, said visits were crucial. Last summer, one of her students, Ciaran Halpin, took an introductory architecture course at Cambridge; the school also placed him with a Cambridge-educated tutor. The truck driver and cleaner’s son will be the first in his family to start college in September. He said he was looking forward to living in a beautiful city that he could explore by bike and on foot, “really just to learn”.
Emma Smith, professor of English at Hertford College, Oxford University, said claims that state school children were intimidated by Oxbridge may be overblown. In 2017, a class at Kensington Academy, a west London school, was in Hertfordshire after a fire at nearby apartment block Grenfell Tower rendered their school uninhabitable. I studied for a week. During their stay, they visited the University of Magdalen, a particularly majestic university. A few students subsequently applied to Magdalen (at least one was accepted), but none applied to Hertford. “I think they think they might as well apply to a college that has its own deer park,” she said.
Once there are enough applicants from public schools, the difficulty for admissions officers is to discern whether potential should outweigh the academic achievement of private school students (who tend to achieve better grades at school), Prof Smith said. About 35 students apply for Hertford’s eight English-language places each year, and there are often two or three very obvious candidates, she said. But the remaining 20 interviewees seemed equally worthy.
For kids in public schools who get into top colleges, extra help is often needed at first. “If you’re going to do that, you need to provide extra tutoring in the first year,” said an English professor at Oxford University who struggled to enroll public school students before they became popular. They usually do poorly in exams at the end of their first year but do well in final exams, she said.
That seems to counter one of the criticisms of universities’ efforts to correct the public-private imbalance: Enrolling more public-school students means standards will slip. Helen Mountfield, vice-chancellor of Mansfield College in Oxford, noted that as the college has “diversified” its enrollment – 95 per cent of Mansfield students are now in a state education – its results have improved. “If you bring in people with different experiences and ways of thinking, they challenge each other’s assumptions, which promotes intellectual creativity and academic success,” she said.
All of this combined could lead to major changes in the landscape of paying to send your kids to school. In response, academic private schools, especially in London, have increasingly marketed themselves as conduits to American universities. But they also don’t have a monopoly. Lawrence Foley, chief executive of Future Academies, a network of state secondary schools, said more and more public school students are applying to American colleges and receiving full scholarships. ■
For more expert analysis of the UK’s biggest news, subscribe to Blighty, our weekly subscriber newsletter.