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Stop acting like private school pupils “own” Oxbridge places

Private school heads demand that university places be awarded on merit alone when they are the ones that have had the unfair advantage.

By Sam Freedman

Once you’ve worked in education long enough you realise the same stories come round and round again with depressing regularity. On Wednesday we had, for something approaching the thousandth time, a Times front page warning “Privately educated to lose places at Oxbridge”. The purpose of the headline seems obvious: to imply that the wealthy readership of the newspaper is being harshly treated by having their heirs’ rightful seats at the top table snatched away.

I’ve debated this topic so often that I could argue both sides in my sleep. The indignant private school heads or parents insist that university admissions should be done on “merit” alone, and that any attempt to consider students’ background introduces the horror of “social engineering” into our education system, along with its corollary, “dumbing down”.

This simply ignores the blindingly obvious reality that the system has been, for many decades, skewed in the other direction. At no point has “merit” been the only deciding factor.

I know that private school pupils have historically had an unfair advantage because I was one. After I decided to apply to Oxford my school arranged a talk and lunch for the college’s lead tutor, and sat me next to him. They gave me a practice interview, not with a spotty undergrad but an internationally famous historian. And that’s before we get to the tiny class sizes, bountifully stocked library and greater number of teaching hours. No one did anything underhand or broke any rules, but there can’t be any doubt that I was sent into competition with a whole load of extra advantages. You could call it social engineering.

Parents will always want what’s best for their children and will, reasonably enough, act in their interest, including paying for a private school or a tutor to get into a grammar if they can afford to do so. It is the job of the state, and the institutions it funds, to look out for the interests of all young people regardless of their birth. That requires paying attention to the accrued benefits of wealth and trying to counter-balance them. Not by the use of crude quotas but the careful weighting of evidence about background alongside attainment.

We know this is the right approach because, all things being equal, pupils from state schools outperform those from private schools at university. We can’t be sure about the cause. Maybe being less confident inspires harder work, but I think the most likely reason is it’s just more difficult to get the same grades from a state school. Otherwise why would anyone pay to go private?

There are some important caveats here. Many state educated Oxbridge entrants went to selective schools or highly selective sixth forms. Access to these schools isn’t as closely tied to wealth as in the private sector but there’s still a clear relationship. In my experience admissions tutors are well aware of this and will weight strong results from applicants with low-income backgrounds who attended comprehensives more highly. But it would be good to have more transparent data on this, alongside private versus state.

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It’s also true that there are some pupils from low-income backgrounds at private schools, but it really is a handful. According to the Independent Schools Council 1.1 per cent of private school pupils last year were on full means-tested bursaries. The vast majority are there because their parents are in the top few per cent of high earners. And it’s got a lot more expensive since my day. The average day school fee is now over £15,000 a year. A boarding school place costs more than the median family earns in a year. Those parents who claim they are not well off but are making sacrifices to buy a good education for their children tend to have no concept of their relative wealth. Most people are making sacrifices to keep the heating on.

The idea that these bastions of privilege somehow “own” places at top universities which they are now “losing” is one that we must continue to push back against. It implies a level of correlation between ability and family income that is entirely implausible. Instead, the slow rebalancing of the scales is just starting to undo historical unfairness. The numbers at Cambridge from state schools has risen from 62.3 per cent to 70 per cent since 2015 and from 55.6 per cent to 68.7 per cent at Oxford. But that’s still well below the 87 per cent who take their A-levels in a state school. We still have a cabinet that is 60 per cent privately educated. And while other professions are slowly becoming more egalitarian we’re a long way from wealth no longer giving an advantage. Private school applicants to the civil service fast stream are still more than twice as likely to get accepted. In the last decade the gap between private school fees and state spending on schools per pupil has more than doubled.

So instead of talking about the privately educated losing out we should celebrate the success made by state schools, and universities, in starting to turn things around against some pretty brutal headwinds. We should be advocating for a better funded state sector, something that is far more likely to happen if the children of our elites use it, and further widening of access to university. We’ll know when private schools no longer proffer any unfair advantages because people will stop paying for them.

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