Two out of three secondary state schools do not send any pupils to Oxbridge, according to new figures released by the Department of Education.

The report studied the destinations of Key stage five students in 2012/2013. Of the 48 per cent of state educated students who went on to higher education, only 16 per cent went on to study at an institution in the top third of HEIs. Oxford and Cambridge jointly admitted only one per cent of this number. In comparison, private fee-paying schools sent 60 per cent of their students to a HEI and five per cent of these were admitted by Oxbridge.

The Master of Wellington College, Sir Anthony Seldon, who delivered the annual ‘access lecture’ at University College this year, talked to Cherwell about the reasons behind this figure, saying, “It is a big thing to crank up a school for Oxford and Cambridge. Unless there are teachers who have been undergraduates there, it can seem intimidating and remote.”

He suggested that in order to improve this figure, the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University could personally sign a letter to every Principal or Head of every secondary school or college in the UK, inviting them to submit applicants, and explain exactly how they can go about it.

However, the University of Oxford told Cherwell, “The University devotes a huge amount of resource to widening access and student support, but diversifying intake is something that can only be done on the understanding that everyone – government, schools, parents, teachers, and universities – has to work together.”

They added, “Admissions figures that show that a small number of schools contribute a large number of successful candidates to Oxford largely reflect the challenges of student recruitment in the context of uneven distribu- tion of high-achieving students in schools.”

A Sutton Trust report in 2011 showed that five English schools – Eton, Westminster, St Paul’s Boys, St Paul’s Girls, and state-funded Hills Road Sixth Form College in Cambridge – sent more pupils to Oxbridge between 2007 and 2009 than nearly 2000 lower-performing other schools combined.

The issue of state school admissions was raised by a debate held at the Oxford Union last Thursday, in which the proposition argued that figures such as these needed addressing by introducing quotas.

However, when asked her opinion on whether quotas should be introduced for state school admissions to Oxford, JCR Access Rep at St. Catherine’s college Rebekka Smiddy, said, “Personally, I’m not a big believer in positive discrimination; it could present potential issues with better applicants being discarded for quota filling.”

“However, I do believe that more state school applicants should be applying to both Oxbridge and Russell group universities, as they often have the ability to succeed but are put off by uncertainty about how the system and university works.”

Geography undergraduate Hannah Kinnimont toldCherwell of her experience applying to Oxford from a comprehensive school and the help she received from a teacher who had attended Oxford.

She admitted, “I would not have had a clue how to apply otherwise and I probably would have chosen to not apply altogether.

“I suppose schools which do not have any teachers or students who have previously gone to Oxbridge are left in the dark about the application process and this may put them off applying.” 

Analysis: Harry Gosling argues that the public-private school impasse is a disgrace, but there is no easy solution 

The perpetual domination of Oxbridge places by privately-educated pupils, with two-thirds of state schools not managing to send a single pupil to Oxford or Cambridge, somewhat undermines the idea that we live in a progressive, socially mobile society.

Private education enables children already privileged by virtue of their family circum- stances to go to schools which further enhance their socioeconomic position. Exceptional resources, superior teachers, and an informational asymmetry in post-16 education are three crucial advantages of private schools. Many private schools have continual informal contact with elite universities, and numerous members of the teaching staff in these schools are often Oxbridge graduates themselves. State schools battle to keep up.

For something as fundamental to a child’s development as education to be determined by parental wealth is unfair and unjust. As Alan Bennett argues, “To educate not according to ability but according to the social situation of the parents is both wrong and a waste.” Figures show that a pupil at a private school is 55 times more likely to be offered a place at Oxford or Cambridge than a state-school pupil from a poor background. 71 per cent of judges, 62 per cent of officers in the armed forces, and 53 per cent of senior diplomats were privately educated, yet only seven per cent of the population attended a private school.

Proponents of fee-paying schools may extol the virtues of a parent’s ability to choose their child’s education. But this misses the point: only a small minority of parents are in a posi- tion to be able to make the choice between putting their children through private or state education. Do we prioritise the right of those who can afford to educate their children privately to do so? Or do we prioritise the right of every child to an equal start in life? The answer to this question reveals the nature of the society we would like to live in.

The problem extends beyond the simple public-private dichotomy, however. We can never hope to succeed in completely levelling the playing field for children starting out in life, as schooling isn’t everything. But educa- tion is arguably the most fundamental aspect of development. The current system entrenches children’s socioeconomic circumstances. 

There is no easy answer when it comes to deciding on a course of action. Lowering the standard of education to the lowest common denominator is not the answer. Politicians, particularly those who were privately educat- ed themselves, tend to wish away the issue. In many cases this is understandable, given the desire to dodge the charge of hypocrisy. Yet in the UK, where we consider ourselves to have an open and mature democracy, we cannot avoid the issue any longer. An open and frank discus- sion concerning the role of private schools is very much needed.

Ensuring that we give all children the same start is impossible, but that does not mean we should not try.