Friday 2 September 2016

Dreaming spires

Oxford University reports today (2 September 2016) that its 2016 entry has the highest proportion (59.2%) of state-school educated students for four decades. See the report from the BBC.

An Oxford College and two buses

No doubt this is good news, but it seems to me there’s a long way to go. Let’s have a bit of a further poke at this.
(Disclaimer: I went to state school and didn’t get a place at Oxford. But I’m trying my best not to have a chip on my shoulder about it. Going to LSE instead (again, a pretty elite institution) was the best thing that could have happened, and I really wouldn’t have thrived amongst the dreaming spires!)
Firstly, how what are the relevant populations? The most recent Department for Education data (nb this is for England only) give the following numbers of 16-18 year olds entered for at least one A level; I’ve added the proportion of the whole which this represents:

Students entered for at least one A level or Applied single/double award A level
FE College

You’ll see that there are three categories of institution – state and independent schools, and FE Colleges. I haven’t been able to source the actual numbers from Oxford’s data, so don’t know the detail, but my assumption is that they mean that 40.8% of the 2016 intake come from the independent sector – that is, the 59.2% figure is the sum of all state-educated entrants. Why do I assume this? Because if they had entrants from FE colleges as well then it would be a stronger story that they’re becoming more diverse, and they’d have said so. So, 40.8% from independent schools it is.

This means that the 13% from the independent sector become over 40% of the total; and the almost 87% from the state sector become not quite 60%.

Oxford admitted just over 2600 UK-domiciled new undergraduates in 2014 (again, the most recently available data.) Assuming that this number stays about the same, then we can see how many independent and state-school educated students they will have, and compare it with what a proportionate distribution would look like:

National proportion
National proportion

So the actual number of independently-educated students attending Oxford this autumn will be over three times the proportionate share of independent schools amongst those taking A levels - 1061 compared to 338. On a simple reading, you’re three times more likely to go to Oxford then you should be, if you go to an independent school.

What conclusions do I draw from this?

Firstly, there’s a manifest unfairness here. It is good that Oxford is doing something about it; and very good that that something is beginning to show results.  Three cheers for Oxford. And keep it up – you’ve a long way to go!

But the underlying unfairness is one which Oxford cannot be blamed for, and cannot address.  Independent schools are characterised mostly by their fee paying status. This enables them to have better facilities than state schools, and smaller class sizes. This in turn means that they are better at getting good A levels, and helping their students’ gain confidence. As long as this gap exists, between what state schools can do, and what independent schools can do, then we’ll see a difference in outcomes. And the difference in outcomes that we currently see is based primarily on family wealth.

I’m not trying to blame individuals for this, or make them feel bad. But as a society it seems that we’re selling ourselves short if we don’t enable all people to maximise their chances in life, and that for me means making state education better. A lot better. This is how we make society more equal, and probably better and more prosperous for all.