In 2016, the University of Oxford offered 59.2 per cent of its places to pupils from state schools, its highest yet. Whilst this makes up the majority of the university, it does not sound so laudable when you realise that only 18 per cent of children over the age of 16 are educated at private schools (seven per cent of children of all ages).
There is a general notion that those at private schools will be ‘groomed’ for Oxbridge. Indeed, at my own school, those applying for Oxbridge tended to have weekly meetings, extra classes, and talks about the interview process and life at those ‘elite’ universities, often taken by members of staff who had studied there themselves. Is it any surprise, then, that from this one private school, nearly 30 people per year group will end up at Oxford or Cambridge, whilst most state schools boast of only a handful?
In fact, between 2007-2009, Westminster, Eton, St Paul’s, St Paul’s Girls’ School and the sixth form college Hills Road together produced 946 Oxbridge entrants, whilst around 2,000 other schools and colleges only sent 927 pupils.
Stephen Twigg, Schools Minister under Tony Blair’s government, backed ‘The Liverpool to Oxbridge Collaborative’ initiative, attempting to give children from low socio-economic backgrounds the same opportunity to apply to Oxbridge as those from top private schools. Not only is this about preparing the students for the application process, but also about eroding the commonly held conception that Oxbridge caters only for privately educated students. Negative perceptions of Oxbridge students casting them as entitled and wealthy – though not entirely untrue – continue to fortify the boundaries between elite universities and state-school pupils. How can we rid the country’s top universities of their exclusive image?
As organisations like Teach First have remarked, educational inequality starts well before pupils even enter primary school. There is a one year gap in ‘school readiness’ for three-year-olds between the richest and poorest families, and by the age of five there is a 15-month vocabulary gap.
The correlation between poor educational attainment and lower socio-economic status is larger than in almost any other developed country. As children grow older the gap continues, with nearly 50 per cent of children who claim free school meals achieving no passes above a D grade at GCSE level.
Compounding pre-educational inequality is the continuation of these very same results in life after university. Indeed, the wealth gap is simply perpetuated in a vicious cycle in which Russell Group graduates earn on average £371,000 more in their lifetimes than someone who left school with fewer than five good GCSEs.
This is not a story of meritocracy: a child from a low socio-economic background who might score in an upper quartile around the age of two is predicted to have fallen far behind their peers with a high socio-economic status by the age of 10.
Whilst it is easy to sit and comment from a privileged position, it is important for those of us who have had these advantages to be examples and to push for change. One of the most important things that we can do is engage and invest in education at all levels, and put greater funding into helping increase the quality of state-school education. This gap is not inevitable or monolithic. Quality education should be a right open to everyone, and university should be regarded as an attainable pursuit, regardless of your socio-economic background.
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