How do we rapidly and realistically increase the number of state school students at institutions like Oxford and Cambridge?
Before I start, I must declare an interest: as a grammar school boy myself, the first in my family to go to university, having recently graduated from Cambridge and now working in a grammar school, it’s become something of an obsession since arriving at university to make sure as many students from backgrounds like mine to get to the best universities.
It’s easy to get carried away though. The newspapers would tell us that the situation is catastrophic; that Oxbridge is full of Etonians/ Paulians/ Harrovians and that there has been little effort to remedy the situation. It’s not as bad as we think: the number of state school students at Oxbridge is healthy. In the 2012/13 admissions cycle, 63% of offers Cambridge made was to state school pupils, up from 58% in the previous year (see here). The University of Cambridge has one of the most generous bursary programmes in the UK (see here) , and millions are spent on delivering access initiatives such as student shadowing, visits, talks and summer schools to encourage more applicants. But coverage is patchy – schools of similar intakes have varying degrees of success, and there are large geographical disparities. The solution to ironing out these differences seems to be in schools better preparing candidates so that they are equally, if not more attractive that privately educated students when they come to apply.
It is here that I think grammar schools play a crucial role, particular in areas of country like Essex. There isn’t space here to talk about merits of grammar schools, and I’m not suggesting that they would exist in an ideal world. As reality stands, however, where they do exist, they have the capacity to be real drivers for social mobility. A school taking the top 20% of local intake should, for example, be looking to prepare and send an equal proportion of its students to Oxbridge. Through work as an interviewer for social enterprise Oxbridge Interviews where I’ve interviewed dozens of candidates from range of backgrounds, it’s easy to notice the ‘edge’ a privately-educated candidate has. It’s our job in the state sector to try to match that edge, within the constraints we have.
So how do we do it?
I believe academically selective schools in particular have a duty to adopt a whole school policy for Oxbridge. This should infiltrate everything they do, right from KS3, to ensure that students never cap their aspiration.
1. Raising Aspiration from the beginning – We need to make sure that our students don’t exclude places like Oxbridge just because they have no prior experience of it. We fail as teachers if we allow students to discount institutions like Oxbridge with the logic that ‘they aren’t for people like me’. This is easily remedied. Schools should look to introduce students to these universities from an early age, attending university access initiatives, visiting on trips, taking tours of the colleges and meeting current students so that our students see that these places are not for the elite, but are full of normal people, like them!
2. Early identification of potential candidates – Often identification of potential candidates happens too late, with only limited time for meaningful preparation to be completed. Students from Year 10 onwards should be identified as potential candidates, and be offered opportunities to broaden their experience of the subject and aim high. In an MFL context, this could include exposure to literature and authentic materials through use of the languages’ assistant (assuming a school has one!) or trainee teachers. These students should be tracked through the school to ensure that, despite their high achieving status, they are not narrowing their horizons.
3. A wide diet of cultural enrichment – Through my experience as an interviewer, I’ve noticed that privately educated pupils have a much broader cultural palette and are able to draw on this when speaking in an academic context. We must try to encourage our state school students to visit the theatre, read books for pleasure, read magazines with an academic edge and then apply them to their work in school. I’m not suggesting that we should be encouraging students to ditch whatever they do at the weekend and force them to go to an art exhibition, but I am saying that schools must provide opportunities for their students to experience alternative cultural experiences, which can then be applied to their studies.
4. Opportunities to think more critically about core content – My favourite question to ask students when I’ve done mock interviews is: ‘Do we trust the author?’ They are normally completely stumped. Through scholarship lessons or routine teaching, we need to be encouraging our students to think much more deeply about what they are currently learning. In arts subjects in particular, the best candidates do not know more than the others, but they can think critically about what they have studied.
5. Promotion of independent learning – The more students work independently, the more they acquire the skills of developing an independent viewpoint. Qualifications such as the Extended Project are invaluable in this respect. Guided support to think deeply, and independently about a topic provides worthwhile material for discussion at interview as well as equipping students with the skills they’ll need to thrive at university.
But isn’t this just promoting a culture of elitism?
Absolutely not. It’s about fundamentally readjusting the culture of aspiration in the type of schools that have a moral imperative to send as many students as possible to the best universities. Each school has a duty to respond to its circumstances. Realistically, national challenge schools and schools fighting low levels of literacy have much more pressing priorities before they consider Oxbridge entry for their students. But state schools that routinely make it into the top 100 state schools for A level have a duty to convert this into Oxbridge places for its students.
A change in culture as I have suggested I believe benefits the whole school community. If those who are unsuccessful at Oxbridge entry gain a place at other Russell Group universities, the school has done them well, particularly in an ever more competitive higher education market. By encouraging every student to aim as high as possible, we are sending a message that no institution is off-limits. We have, however, failed those capable of places at the best institutions if we fail to offer them a determined programme of preparation.
Living in Dreamland
What I’ve outlined above is unashamedly a ‘dreamland’ project. I appreciate that many of these suggestions cost money in terms of staff, time and a realignment of expectations. It has certainly given me food for thought though – not least in looking at how some of these things could realistically be implemented in schools such as the one I work in. I’d be interested to hear your suggestions.