Oxford is (yet again) under attack for its disproportionate preference for privately-educated students over their state school counterparts, with criticism coming this time from the government itself, via the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission.
It seems clear that a proactive approach to encouraging equal access, and therefore social mobility, is long overdue. I brought with me to Oxford a whole host of preconceived private school stereotypes, and that seems to have been an experience common to many of those who came through the state education system. Fears of ‘the Oxford bubble’, a world of Received Pronunciation and trust fund babies were (fortunately) quickly dispelled, with no obvious disparity between the different classes of student.
This is a positive for those of us who are here – but it’s hard to ignore the lingering question of why private schools are so grossly overrepresented, when the privately educated students here are so similar to the people I met at school. Former private school students make up around 40% of Oxford’s intake, despite representing just 18% of 6th form students across the country.
This might be understandable if the primary criteria for attending a private school was intelligence rather than wealth, but that simply isn’t the case. What tends to mark privately educated students out, if anything, is a sheen of unwavering self-confidence, a bit of added ‘sparkle’ from the intensive preparation for Oxford that many will have received. If this is what the admissions process seems to value above all else, it needs to change.
I’m not calling for some extreme overhaul of the admissions criteria, just a closer adherence to the existing guidelines. The university repeatedly assures applicants that they are looking for raw talent and potential, but they instead continue to be won over by the superficial gloss that private schools excel at offering to those who can afford their fees.
The usual counter-arguments to a fairer admissions process tend to warn of the dangers of ‘affirmative action’, or the particularly vomit-inducing ‘reverse discrimination’. That is not what this is. There’s something grimly arrogant in the notion that state school students can only compete if private schoolers are discriminated against.
I’m not talking about imposing some kind of quota, merely about making a more concerted effort to look past the superficial and make a fairer assessment of the potential of each candidate. The attempt at levelling the playing field through the university’s own entrance tests is commendable, but more needs to be done: perhaps these tests could be made less predictable, and more weight given to factors like contextual grades, instead of interview performance.
Oxford will continue to complain that it is not their job to facilitate social mobility, and it is true that we ask a lot. But if we expect a disproportionate amount, it is only because this university has a disproportionate ability to make a difference. It is not Oxford’s job to make state schools better at preparing their students for application – but it is Oxford’s job, in my view, to design an admissions process that negates this failing as much as possible.
To their credit, some private schools are also doing their bit, and the widely-reported rise in the proportion of private school students from deprived backgrounds, on significant scholarships, is excellent news. But this should not be used as an argument against doing more to help applicants from state schools. Such scholarship students ought to understand better than anyone that sometimes intervention is needed to counteract the advantages that some people are born into.
Because ultimately, my problem is not with the proportion of Oxford students who went to private or state schools, but the fact that the whole process simply isn’t fair. Applicants are routinely disadvantaged because their school wasn’t as good, or their background not as privileged.
If it were true that Oxford really does accept the smartest people each year, and that private school students just happen to be naturally more intelligent than state school students, then I would accept the imbalance. But I genuinely don’t believe that to be the case.