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Hanging in the (im)balance: the state-private school disparity in Oxford

Fionn McFadden argues for the importance in proportional representation of state school students in Oxford.

If any place is familiar with the trials and tribulations of maintaining a complex reputation, it’s the University of Oxford. As an instantly recognisable academic, political and cultural landmark of the UK, its image is the subject of media and cultural hypersensitivity. In spite of countless assertions to the contrary, Oxford’s depiction as a strange world of bizarre customs and dusty books, neatly dressed in ball-gown hedonism, is still alive and kicking today.

This is certainly the case in my hometown of Harrogate: a sleepy little spa town tucked away at the foot of the Yorkshire Dales, where a handful of students from its schools grace the City of Dreaming Spires with our northern-tinged presence. The number of times I’ve been jokingly asked if I’ve put a certain body part in a pig’s mouth is higher than the number of Tories with actual Bullingdon Club membership. Such a unique reputation finds its roots in the institution’s practices and culture. The word Oxbridge is most often used with implications of superior social status and elitism. The term was, in fact, described by journalist Carole Cadwalladr in 2008 as shorthand for an elite that “continues to dominate Britain’s political and cultural establishment.”

The eagled-eyed amongst you will have already noticed that these characteristics of Oxford bear a striking resemblance with those of another of Britain’s most infamous educational institutions. That’s right, the much-dreaded E word. I’m talking about Eton. More specifically, not just this one institution, yet in sense of the word as encompassing all of the private schools that this nation covertly, yet proudly, boasts. You only need to flick through history to see that this University has acted, and continues to act, as a halfway house between many politicians’ humble beginnings in the Berkshire countryside, and their end goal of Westminster domination. 20 UK Prime Ministers have received an Eton education, with a total of 28 having also attended Oxford.

Look no further than the incumbent leader of our glorious Union: an Etonian, turned Balliolite, who is now responsible for making the most crucial decisions in our country. Boris Johnson, like many of his predecessors, is living evidence that Oxford has an affinity to educate the not-so-greats, in the Greats, so long as the price tag is right. This is reflected in the extent to which Oxford swings open the doors of every one of its colleges to welcome students from private schools with open arms.

A Sutton Trust study done in 2018 revealed that eight schools, six of whom were independent and the other two state sixth-form colleges in Cambridge and Hampshire, filled 1,310 Oxbridge places over three years; this is compared with 1,220 from 2,900 other schools, a practice that Oxford (as well as Cambridge) continues to maintain. This statistic is mind-blowing. It demonstrates the minuscule geographical pool from which Oxford admits students, made only narrower by its socio-economic hegemony. Such a stark statistic becomes even more terrifying when the bigger picture is considered. It is estimated that anywhere between as little as 6%-7% of the UK school population attend private schools. I implore you to pause for a second and visualise the magnitude of the discrepancy between 93% and 7%. One doesn’t need to be a mathematician to work out that such an imbalance means that a frighteningly small number of students, the majority of whom have already become accustomed to small class sizes, easy access to resources and state of the art facilities, are being given disproportionate access to one of the world’s leading academic, political and cultural institutions.

I am not calling for a ban on private school students attending Oxford, which would be a ludicrous suggestion. Education is a human right that is recognised by the majority of, if not all, international organisations. Access to education should be equal, regardless of sex, gender identity, race, sexuality, religious belief, or wealth. Yet, the existence of private schools fundamentally contradicts this principle. One of their major problems is that they restrict the choices that the majority of parents have over their children’s education. Of course, any parent with their children’s best interests at heart would choose to send them to a school with the most exciting prospects for future education and employment. Yet, the private school system restricts that choice to the few who are lucky enough to afford it.

“But what about scholarships?”, you might ask. Yet again, it comes down to the numbers. Only a shocking 1% of students at private schools pay no fees as part of scholarship programmes, whilst only 4% of private school turnover is in fact devoted to bursaries. Scholarships act as a façade– creating an illusion that private schools are committed to widening access to lower-income families and disadvantaged children. The numbers say otherwise, confirming instead that scholarships are little more than a PR stunt, merely masking a brewing pot of entrenched privileged that has leaked into Britain’s institutions for centuries.

And by maintaining such a huge disparity, Oxford has not only actively allowed for its propagation, it has become a key cog in the maintenance of educational inequality. Ashamedly, my own college, Balliol, offers the Vaughan Memorial Travelling Scholarship, a travel grant worth up to £4,000, available to Old-Etonians only. It must be noted however that some colleges make a concerted effort to stand out and stand up for state school students: Wadham, Hertford and Mansfield come to mind.

The latter is indeed a rare example, a college that builds its appeal almost entirely around its high proportion of state-educated students. The first thing one sees on Mansfield’s web page the blaring assertion that the college is ‘open, friendly and welcoming’, boasting that ‘Mansfield has the highest state sector intake of Oxford colleges’. This is indeed true, and their efforts have certainly been commendable. Mansfield appears to be the only Oxford college to have ever passed the 93% threshold, with their 2019 intake being comprised of 94% state school students.Despite this, their intake fell back across the threshold to 91% in 2020. Even with that, Mansfield by-far outshines all other colleges.

In 2019, Balliol just scraped past 60% state, whilst Christ Church barely clung onto a balance, with 49.8% of its students admitted coming from private schools. Such imbalance brings a host of dire effects, yet the most upsetting is the isolation, stress and even guilt felt by some state school students during the so-called best time of their lives. For a truly moving and personal account of such an experience, I urge you to read Balliol medic Leoni Loughlin’s article on the Oxford Student entitled “Feeding them to the Lions: Access burnout and guilt. Her account proves that for a significant proportion of state school students, access programs do little to tackle the problems that Oxford’s affinity to private schools creates.

Access programs are not working precisely because they do not go far enough in addressing the problems of the state/private disparity at its root. Like scholarships, they appear to act as a solution to temporarily plaster over cracks that the University has allowed to grow, century after century. This is why, despite their best efforts, the marketing of colleges like Mansfield and Wadham as a watertight safe space for state school students is misleading, turning a blind eye to the problems of state school students that permeate every Oxford college.

The imbalance and its plethora of disastrous consequences is a blaring problem that the University has ignored for far too long. Urgent and meaningful action is needed. As a centre of education first and foremost, providing a bridge between students’ secondary school careers and their entry into the world of adulthood and employment, it is only right that Oxford’s intake reflects that of the school population of the UK as a whole.

The quality of the social and academic education received at Oxford will only be enriched by admitting a pool of students as representative of the wider population as possible.  Perhaps, such action to ensure this may come in the form of a ‘93% charter’- a binding promise from all colleges to increase their state school admissions to meet the 93% threshold (or its representative equivalent) by a date in the near future. Such a charter must include a guarantee to admit from a wider range of state schools, not just those in leafy suburbs and small towns like Harrogate. These promises could, in fact, be entrenched into the University Statutes as a resounding commitment to take on a role as a key figure in promoting educational equality. Such proposals sound drastic, but I am calling on, pleading and imploring the heads of both the colleges and the central administration to consider it as a necessary measure to resolve a drastic problem.

Yet I am a realist, and in the great Oxonian tradition of taking time to respond to the calls of social progress, perhaps other action needs to be taken in the meantime. At this moment I am reminded of one of my mum’s favourite maxims: “If you want to change something, change it from the inside”. It is now time for private school students, committed to building a better future for all young people, to use their privilege and voice to pressure these institutions to allow waves of committed, engaged and deserving state school students to make a significant step towards institutional inequality. Such an effort must be an almost unanimous one, which may involve uncomfortable, but necessary, self-reflection and discussion. Dire problems will require dire solutions.

I want to end this article with some reflections. I sometimes feel that, despite my passion to see the end of educational inequality, it is not my place to argue – a cisgender, white male who comes from a privileged, middle-class background, who attended a highly ranked state school where opportunities for and aid in applying to Oxbridge were presented every step of the way, as well as having two loving, supportive and academic parents who have always been around to help foster my interests and soothe my worries. In the short time I’ve been at Oxford, I’ve felt so lucky to have met the most wonderful group of interesting, kind and like-minded people whilst studying a subject I love. Yet, personally, this is exactly the reason why I am writing this article and support such urgent action to be taken on this issue.

Despite what the Conservatives may tell you, privilege and status come with responsibilities, namely that of ameliorating the circumstances of those less fortunate than yourself. Students at Oxford who have come from backgrounds of privilege must become leading voices in pressuring the institution to shake off its bias, both hidden and overt, against state schools and students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Above all, the institution of the University of Oxford itself must finally recognise that its standing as a leader in academic and research progress requires it to step up too as a leader in the fight for social progress and justice. As an educative institution at its core, nowhere is it more suited to join than the wider campaigns in the UK to finally bring an end to educational inequality, such as Abolish Eton, a Labour Party grassroots campaign calling to ‘end the class segregation of our schools’. Increasing state school intake will not solve all of Oxford’s problems, yet it’s certainly a start.

Oxford is and has always been an elitist institution. Yet this must not deter people from fighting against these problems or giving into them. Such change seems impossible: Oxford’s comfort with private school students is so deeply entrenched in its culture and practices, thus change to combat this inequality must go beyond the surface level of access schemes and outreach events. It is long overdue, but it is finally time that Oxford faces up to the numbers, and does the right thing, to prove that it is really the world leader it claims to be, not desperately clinging on to its damaging past.

Image credit: Fonie Mitsopoulou

01/04/2021, 12:30: This article was amended to clarify the result of the 2018 Sutton Study.

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