Dreaming spires for all? Only if we face up to some hard truths
There’s a fundamental problem at the heart of our education system: private schools educate around 7% of students yet account for 44.6% of students at Oxford. A familiar statistic, but one that highlights the failure of too many of our state schools. Defenders of educational elitism rightly point out that top universities should take the best pupils wherever they find them. But making this point is too often a way of avoiding the real issue: that our state school system is failing to produce enough bright, confident and hard-working children.
I refuse to believe or accept that talent is concentrated in the offspring of the rich, and so our attention has to be turned to a state school system that disparages academic rigour, promotes educational fads, and lacks the confidence to inspire children to great things. It goes without saying that there are some places in the education system where you will still find a rigorous, challenging and inspiring education, but they are sadly few and far between.
Another, connected, problem with the road to university is that raw grades aren’t the best indicator of ability and good schools are simply getting too good at teaching to the exam. Research by Tony Hoare at Bristol University found that by the end of university, students who had attended poor schools far outperformed those with the same grades who had been better educated. This seems to show that ‘good’ schools aren’t necessarily producing more intelligent students, simply ones that are better at passing the exams. This doesn’t automatically mean that we start lowering the grades for students from weak schools, but it does involve recognising that the current system isn’t good enough at identifying the best talent. A possible remedy may be increasing the use of interviews.
For all this talk of intelligence and grades, one simple fact remains: that even where there are identical candidates on paper the one from a decent independent school (or from a handful of state-funded ‘Oxbridge factories’) will be more likely to get a place at a top university. This isn’t because of outright bias by the Universities, but because of informal information networks that the top secondary schools are privy to. Information is key in the application process to good Universities (especially for Oxbridge): whether it be which subjects to study at A-Level, or what University or Oxbridge College a student is more likely to get in to. Whether it comes from a 100 year history of Oxbridge success or an old friend of the Headmaster, the top schools seem to have more access to the information that makes all the difference.
This article shouldn’t be seen as an invitation to scold our top universities for bias, or to demand that they become centres for social mobility, but to face up to the harsh reality that equally talented students don’t compete on an equal playing field, and that our state school system doesn’t do enough to promote academic excellence and get the very best students to the very best universities.
Throughout October and November, The Independent Online is partnering with the Institute of Ideas’ Battle of Ideas festival to present a series of guest blogs from festival speakers on the key questions of our time.
Jacob Reynolds is a politics undergraduate at the University of Sheffield and an alumnus of the Debating Matters Competition. He spoke at the Battle of Ideas session Dreaming spires for all? Oxbridge and social mobility, organised in partnership with the RCA Students’ Union and in association with Times Higher Education and the IOI Education Forum.Tagged in: degree, education, elitism, opinion, Oxbridge, oxford university, private education, school, state schools, university
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