State of play?

Leah Hyslop explores the obstacles facing state school students applying to Oxford A few weeks ago, a friend of mine told me the story of her attempts to apply to Oxford. ‘Privileged’ enough to attend a Southern grammar school, she was none the less a student whose place of study had little or no tradition of sending pupils to Oxbridge, and her first tentative attempts to broach the idea with the Head of Sixth-Form were met with nothing less than open-mouthed confusion. “Oxford? But wouldn’t you, well, have to get your UCAS form in really early?”To some, this story will sound all too familiar. To others, the concept of a school which doesn’t regard Oxbridge as the birth-right of its pupils will seem curious, even laughable. For all its attempts to broaden its state school intake, Oxford is still dominated by the private school monopoly that has given it its unfortunate “elitist” reputation, and the University’s most recently published set of statistics hardly helps. Though the balance in 2007 (in terms of UK candidates) between 53.5% state school students and 46.5% from independent schools may look alright in isolation, it entirely fails to reflect the proportion of state schools on a national level, and is in fact a swing in favour of independents. A shocking 38.5% of Oxford’s undergraduate body in 2007 was taken from London and the South East alone, whilst Ireland (1%) Scotland (2.1%) and the North East (2.1%) lagged sharply behind.So is Oxford consciously elitist? Tabloid scandals such as that of the so-called ‘Laura Spence Affair’ — the student with 5 A Levels who was rejected from Magdalen — would certainly lead us to believe so. Yet the fact remains that it is not in Oxford’s interests to discriminate against applicants from working class backgrounds. This is, after all, the age of “equal opportunities”: by 2011, Oxford is expected to take 62% of students from the state sector. Projects such as the Oxford Access scheme work to promote awareness of Oxford as a potential destination within state schools, whilst the Sutton Trust Summer Schools are exclusively aimed towards the underprivileged. Nothing could be more explicitly geared to welcome students from all backgrounds than the University’s admissions website, which pledges a commitment to recruit “the brightest and best students, regardless of their social, educational, regional or ethnic background.” What, then, is keeping the number of state school students at Oxford so depressingly low?
The answer probably has less to do with Oxford than the schools from which its applicants are drawn. According to one current Oxford student, a London-based private school such as Haberdashers gets at least 40 applicants into Oxbridge a year, through intensive coaching. A student from Bancroft’s, Essex, tells how her school had a system by which students were sent to be interviewed by an unknown teacher at another local school to gain the full “interview experience.” A far cry from the many comprehensives, and even grammar schools, that rarely send a single student to Oxbridge. Though Oxford claims that its interview process places emphasis on “potential rather than achievement,” the simple truth remains that a student who has been brought up to see Oxford as a birthright, and has had practise in an interview situation, will have an advantage over a student who has been flung into an alien world, for whom the sheer confidence of private school students is disorientating and even intimidating. I certainly spent most of my interview period quaking in my room, bewildered by the articulate and forthright students around me. I doubt I was the only one.It’s not just in terms of interview preparation that private school students benefit. Oxford admissions tests are touted by the University as a perfectly fair way of discriminating between students. But state school students are still at a decided disadvantage against pupils whose parents can afford tutoring, and whose schools will go out of their way to prepare them. How could the University compensate? Should it issue lower offers to students from schools where teachers and facilities are of a poorer standard? Is positive discrimination patronising? And, even more crucially, should Oxford accept students whose A Level subjects are regarded as ‘easy’ or ‘soft’, but are the subjects which their state schools specialise in? A lot of current students rant about how insulting positive discrimination is, and how it unfairly penalises more able or committed students from apparently “privileged” backgrounds. But then, these people rant about it very loudly, after rather too much port, and use phrases like “it’s political correctness gone mad.” And of course, they all went to Eton.