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17 May

Zahawi misunderstands why Oxbridge lowers grades for students like me

State school pupils outperform their private counterparts.

By Lauren Shirreff

Nadhim Zahawi, the Education Minister, said on Saturday that state school pupils should only be offered places at Oxbridge if they meet the same high standards as their privately educated peers. He described ensuring more state school pupils attend Oxbridge as “tilting the system”, suggesting that it would mean admissions were based less on “merit”.

The most obvious point to make is that it’s strange that Zahawi sees policies such as contextual grade offers as tilting the system, as opposed to un-tilting it. The gap between private and state school A-level grades is greater than it has ever been; the increase in A and A* grades was 50 per cent higher among private schools at the last set of results. The discrepancy has been exacerbated by Covid — not least thanks to Zahawi’s predecessor as Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, mangling the system — and the government now spends 23 per cent less per head on state sixth formers than it did in 2010.

But more than anything, Zahawi is mistaken because the evidence overwhelmingly shows that contextual admissions processes lead to better results. At university, state-school pupils outperform private counterparts who receive the same A-level grades.

I am, in a sense, an example of this. I got a B in one of my A-levels but on results day Oxford still decided to admit me because of my low-income background (I was also a awarded a scholarship to Oxford because of my household income, and my parents not going to university). This is the kind of practice that the likes of Zahawi seem to view as “lowering standards” and yet my place was hardly wasted. I got a 2:1 in my finals, edited my student newspaper, and won an award for my journalism while I was there.

The wider evidence speaks to this too. Since 2016, another college, Lady Margaret Hall, has been piloting a foundation year programme for disadvantaged students, who “only” need 3 Bs at A-level to study subjects like Law and PPE. Of the first two cohorts to graduate, 93 per cent achieved a 2:1 or better in their final exams, mirroring university-wide results for the same period.

There will always be those who argue that contextual admissions make the achievements of those from disadvantaged backgrounds worth less in the long run. To me, this couldn’t be further from the truth. State schoolers perform so well at Oxbridge because they have qualities that set them up well for academic success — traits such as determination and ambition, as well as talent and passion, which so often go overlooked in discussions about university admissions.

At the end of the day, it is strange that Zahawi views Oxbridge’s actions as misguided altruism or as political, when they are simply an expression of the universities’ desire to get the best students possible. Indeed, both Oxford and Cambridge have introduced foundation year courses more widely this year. Oxbridge’s attitude to state school students has already changed for the better — it’s time for the Education Secretary to catch up.

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