Investigation: are schools failing Oxford applicants?


Under half of comprehensively educated students at Oxford think their school did enough to encourage their application.

An investigation by Cherwell shows that 34 per cent of students at non-selective sixth forms thought they were “not offered enough encouragement”, with another 18 per cent “unsure”. 

For schools whose students normally achieved grades lower than BBC at A-Level, over two thirds said they were not encouraged to apply.

The results were in stark contrast to respondents who had attended independent schools. Less than one fifth of independent sixth form alumni said they were not offered enough encouragement.

Results from selective grammar schools were similar: 72 per cent said they received enough encouragement, against 16 per cent who did not.

The results come as part of a Cherwell investigation into how schools promote university applications. 318 Oxford students responded to questions about their past school and its attitude to Oxbridge.

Overall, the survey shows a striking contrast between the support available in non-selective state schools and independent schools. When asked to give a rating out of five for their school’s support during applications, only 36 per cent of state school attendees gave a four or five, against 68 per cent of independent school alumni.

A spokesperson for the University of Oxford emphasised Oxford’s access work. “Oxford tries hard to ensure that all those with the potential to succeed apply — regardless of background — and devotes more energy and resources to outreach activity than just about any other university in the country.”

They noted that the University spends £4.5 million on outreach work, and is in contact with 78 per cent of all sixth forms, “virtually all schools with students capable of making a competitive application to Oxford”.

They continued, “The University over the past several years has focussed an enormous amount of effort in working with teachers, allowing Oxford to help many cohorts of students via their teachers rather than individual students in any given year.”

Nevertheless, many state school students had negative preconceptions of prestigious universities when they applied. When asked for the word or phrase they most associated with Oxbridge, the most common answers related to academia, especially the words “elite”, “academic” and “prestige”.

But the fourth most cited word was “posh”, with 18 uses, followed by “elitist” with 11. The words “intimidating”, “exclusive”, “toff”, “snobby”, “stuck-up”, “privilege”, and “daunting” were chosen by a further 15 current students.

The survey implies that most comprehensive schools take a back-seat in encouraging students to apply. 64 per cent of non-selective state school students said their family was more important than their school in motivating them to apply. One comprehensive school alumnus said the main encouragement for their application was “God”.

Students had a huge variety of experiences during their applications. Many were discouraged before applying. 

One respondent described being told by a Year 11 Careers Advisor that “there was ‘no point’ in applying to Oxbridge: the implication — ‘people like us never get in.’”

One respondent was told that Oxbridge “was elitist and I wouldn’t fit in.” Another said Oxford was presented as an “elite and snobby institution.” 

Many comprehensive school students were told inaccurate information about the qualifications required. Several students were told that not having solely A*s at GCSE disqualified them from the process.

As one respondent wrote, “Multiple teachers told me that I wouldn’t get in and so it wasn’t worth applying: this was well intentioned insofar as they didn’t want to waste my time, but obviously had the potential to be incredibly harmful to my prospects.”

A different student described a similar problem. “The thinking was that you had to be academically perfect to get into Oxford. If you were you would be encouraged”. One undergraduate said their school was “run by people who had no idea about the application process and used admissions statistics to scare students into feeling inadequate.”

According to some respondents, these problems were exacerbated by the presentation of Oxford. One current graduate student, who did not apply to Oxford for undergraduate study, described a physics open day: “All my prejudices were confirmed, mostly by other students I met at the open day, many of whom had a strong sense of entitlement.”

In one student’s eyes, Oxonian institutions were unappealing: “The emphasis on the long history and elaborate customs discourages comprehensive school students.” These problems were increased by the “choice of open day representatives” who reinforced “a particular image of an Oxford student.”

Even among non-selective state schools that did encourage Oxbridge applications, misconceptions were common; in the words of one pupil, the school “had the right intentions throughout, but virtually no idea of actual useful advice.” For one person, “the teachers were quite supportive but didn’t really know how to give me practical help and I had no practice interviews at school.”

However, not all non-selective state schools reported such negative experiences. In one case, a student described holding lessons with “specially catered personal statement writing for Oxford, mock interviews, and Oxbridge meetings trying to encourage people to apply.”

Other students praised their comprehensive school. “Teachers suggested I apply and I would never have thought I was capable of making an application on my own,” said one current undergraduate. Another said “before my English teacher in Year 12 suggested I could apply, I would never have thought I could: Oxbridge was too posh and for geniuses.”

Many alumni of independent schools wrote that applications to Oxbridge were considered the norm. One Old Etonian said, “Literally everyone applied so the encouragement was inherent.”

An alumnus of Westminster School said, “It was assumed most of us would want to apply, although my tutor was emphatic that it was not the best for certain things. The school hypes it tremendously… I think it’s quite self-selective — if you go to Westminster you probably have Oxbridge ambitions.”

Grammar school students also said that applications to Oxbridge were normal. One said that it was “far less of a big deal than I was expecting.” Another alumnus said, “I don’t think I had the normal experience — over 50 students applied to Oxbridge from my school in my year, and around 15 got places.”

The outcomes of the survey reflect the demography of the University of Oxford. Although 93 per cent of students nationally attend state schools, only 57 per cent of offers made in 2012 were to state school students. This is largely due to the number of applications made by each sector, with 63 per cent of Oxford candidates in 2012 coming from independent schools. Students from comprehensives and sixth form colleges made up 28 and 11 per cent of offers in 2012.  


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