Dropping the drawbridge; state-school intake and academic success at Cambridge

Jack Riley
caius 225x300 Dropping the drawbridge; state school intake and academic success at Cambridge

Gonville and Caius College Gate of Honour

You have to be very careful identifying causality in education. Boris Johnson’s belief that since he learned Latin and turned out alright our children should learn Latin and will, in the end, turn out alright, is one example of an inference too far, for example. Today’s story about how a spate of state school applications has seen Cambridge college Emmanuel ride to the top of the Tompkins Table may be another such case.

There is no doubt in my mind that a healthy proportion of state school students at a university (and by healthy I mean the proportionate 93%, not the 58% Cambridge average) is a good thing. It will in most cases lead to greater academic achievement, and, more importantly, greater social diversity; social diversity isn’t a very trendy concept at the moment, but there you go, I’ve said it. But looking at another set of figures relating state school applications to academic achievement from Cambridge tells a very different story. It’s the story of Gonville & Caius, a college so posh that most people can’t pronounce it’s name, which this year tumbled from 4th to 11th in the (admittedly disputed) Cambridge rankings.

When, in a past life, I was the student representative for encouraging state school admissions at another Cambridge college, Caius was considered the worst example of failing to include students from the widest possible range of backgrounds. The headline figure was 43% – that was the proportion of their intake in 2006 who were from the maintained sector, at a time when maintained schools accounted for 93% of the nation’s children (I’ve confirmed that figure with Richard Garner, our Education Editor, who wrote today’s story). Caius was regarded as up there with Trinity for social exclusion, after the latter notoriously fielded a candidate for election to the access committee campaigning on a platform of ‘lift the drawbridge and keep out the proles’.

Here are the figures for Gonville and Caius’ percentage of state school students over 2004-2007 (the numbers are transcribed from graphs from the reporter, so there’s a margin of error);

2004-2005 – 53

2005-2006 - 48 (- 5)

2006-2007 – 43 (-5)

2007-2008 – 58 (+15)

So, with the exception of linguists, engineers and others on courses longer than three years, this year’s graduations are drawn from the 2007 intake, which had 15% more state school students than the year before, and here’s the sad fact; they’ve done significantly worse than the skewed intake of the years which preceded them, coming 11th after the college came 4th for two years in a row. They’ve fallen from a score of 66.85% last year to 63.72% this year (explanation of what that means here).

There must be more to these figures than meets the eye. I’ve been unable to get in touch with the Caius admissions office to ask them what they think, and so the question stands; if it has an effect at all, why did a higher state school intake seemingly have the exact opposite effect on academic results at Caius than it had at Emmanuel? Answers on a postcard of King’s Chapel.

(Image via Jim Linwood/Flickr under CC licence)

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  • Rob Sharp

    It would be interesting to see whether any concrete research has been done into this, and if anyone could point me in that direction? I’d argue that by the time people had been granted a place they were probably of a “sufficient standard” (as with any good university) to perform well in their exams. But how people perform once they are are at university is so dependent on their individual circumstances that I’d guess it would be hard to correlate the two? The angle of Richard Garner’s story is surely just because of admissions policy? So in that sense is understandable?

  • Jack Riley

    I certainly agree on the need for concrete research – the published figures can only take you so far. I’d add that another reason it’s worth probing further is that the argument that admissions should go on academic grades alone presumes that academic differences in students when they matriculate are not levelled out during the degree process as you describe.

  • stinks_beak

    Small numbers, no error estimates, go back to school.
    Caius has 475 undergraduates, lets say 160 in each year.
    so 15% increase is 24 students.
    Tomkins is reported with four significant figures, no wonder it is disputed

  • Jack Riley

    Right… but that’s kind of the point. The stats say two different things, so it’s unreasonable to infer causality in the way the original article’s headline did. But as long as people on both sides of the debate over state-school admissions policy try to use the numbers to back up their arguments, it’s worth drawing attention to areas where the stats disagree with either side.

  • stinks_beak

    agreed, the numbers (here and in the original article) show nothing.

  • Expatnhappy

    Cambridge is not a finishing school, (though it finishes a good number who go there): social diversity cannot be a “goal”, though it might be an effect, of searching for the most intellectually able (and most intellectually ambitious) people of a generation. Personally, having been to Trinity when the drawbridge was well and truely down (50% state school by diktat) and hard-line Stalinist dons still abounded, it never struck me that the exceptionally gifted undergraduate scientists and mathematicians the college had diligently collected from all corners of the world had absorbed or reflected any social stratification or behaviours at all in their early lives: many were personally idiosyncratic to the point of strangeness and the idea of deliberately “including” them with others of “diverse” backgrounds would have been both pointless and simply irrelevant to them and everyone else. Class, social skills, like race and religion, are, ultimately, beside the point to intellectual distinction and intellectual ambition: you either have them or you dont.

  • AlexKung

    Jack you and I share the same alma mater and we both know that at Cambridge there is little or no correlation between tripos results and what school you went to. King’s, with its high state school intake, has in recent years been an academically middling college, Homerton and New Hall even more so. Peterhouse has soared nearly ten places this year not by changing their admissions policy, but by exerting more pressure on their students to perform well academically. As an ex-JCR Rep you should know better than to claim that it is possible to discern any trend whatsoever, and I’m surprised you’ve taken such a simplistic view of the matter.

  • Jack Riley

    Again, and I’m wishing now I made it more explicit in the post, that’s exactly the point. As I said to, ahem, stinks_beak, the fact that the statistics say two totally different things has to be an indication of either a lack of causality (which is what I think and what you’ve said), or that higher state-school intake would have a different effect at one college than another. If the headline to Richard Garner’s piece is going to stand, then someone has to make the case for causality; otherwise you can’t say, as the piece did, that the two are connected.

  • David Griffin

    Just because Caius had a high % intake of state school applicants doesn’t mean they got the best of the state school applicants, who may well have flocked to Emma as it seemed more welcoming. And maybe once into the college, the state school students did not achieve their best because the tutoring style may not have suited them.

    There’s a lot of nonsense written about how “proportionate” the admissions policy at Oxbridge generally is. Figure have shown for a while that OF THOSE WHO APPLY the states school applicants are equally or more likely to be admitted. They are under represented in the undergraduate population mainly because FEWER OF THEM APPLY (despite programmes spanning a generation aimed at trying to breakdown the false image of the place as biased).
    This false image comes largely from the media. And stories such as this.

    A college can only meaningfully raise it’s state school intake by increasing states school admissions. If instead it does so by some sort of affirmative action it may be at the the expense of better students, which will come back to bite the college 3 years later. Maybe that’s what happened at Caius ?

    As a state school graduate of Cambridge, I can tell you that what I thought of the place in the sixth form before actually seeing the place couldn’t have been further from the truth. You can of course find plenty of toffs and hoorays if you go looking for them (and the press delight in doing so) but as an undergrad I’d have had to go looking for them to run into them on a regular basis. I just remember a load of capable and energetic people trying to make the most of a once in a lifetime experience.

  • chABC

    To be honest, the ongoing failure/inability of the university to divide their statistics into Grammar and Comprehensive intake negates any hints of trends regarding “diverse backgrounds” and academic performance anyway.

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