THE WARDEN of New College has accused state schools of jeopardising bright pupils’ chances of gaining places at Oxford by encouraging them to do too many A-levels and pushing them into so-called "soft subjects".
Speaking in the Times Higher Education Supplement, Professor Alan Ryan criticised what he called "the full horror of league tables and a focus on indicators such as A-level points." He argued that state schools’ concern with their own status was detrimental to the interests of top pupils.
"A school looks better if a student gets two As and two Bs than if the same student gets three As; but the student will miss out on the standard Oxbridge offer with the first set of grades," he said.
"It’s not state schools alone that reduce their students’ chances by putting them in for too many A-levels, but I suspect they are less likely to appreciate the total uninterest in A-level points and the UCAS tariff that prevails among selective universities and to be more concerned than private schools with their league table showing," he said.
He also argued that state schools were pushing their pupils into taking non-academic A-levels that were not valued by Oxford when selecting new students.
"They imperil their chances by doing ‘soft’ subjects. The only evidence we’ve got of how well students can handle difficult subjects is how well they have handled them already," he said.
Dr John Dunford, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, acknowledged that pupils were sometimes put under pressure by schools preoccupied with league tables, but blamed the government for encouraging it.
"Schools want to see all students reach their full potential and the vast majority put their students’ best interests above league table results. However, the government’s fixation with GCSE and A-level results as a barometer of schools’ success does mean that there is a perverse incentive for schools to focus on increasing the percentage of ‘good’ grades. Until the system is changed, this perverse incentive will exist," he said.
Professor Ryan rejected recent comments made by the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, that Oxford and Cambridge were biased against less affluent applicants. Ryan said that the University already took every plausible state school applicant with the appropriate "academic" A levels. Research published over the summer showed that the number of entrants in media, film and television studies A-levels has increased by almost 250 per cent over the past decade.