The comments on a recent post at A Corner of Tenth Century Europe have morphed into a discussion on admissions to Oxbridge and whether or not candidates from state schools are disadvantaged. As someone who went to Oxford from a comprehensive school, I’ve added in my opinion, but in many ways the state/public school issue is a red herring. L, my daughter is just five and three quarters, and has one year of full-time education (a reception year at a local primary school). And yet her chances of going to Oxbridge are already vastly greater than many of her classmates.
Along with any inherited advantage in intellect she has (and I don’t know exactly how much that is), she’s also had the benefit of a lot of attention in her early years, both from us and from good quality childcare. Raised in a household full of books and read to a lot, she’s picked up voracious reading almost automatically. She gets taken along on holidays to the museums, castles and places with exciting scenery that we enjoy. During her childhood, she will thus get from us not only the support that any stable family can provide, but a level of cultural capital that many children don’t get. If she is having problems with her homework, we can between us probably help her; we can make sure that her subject choices at school don’t cut down her future academic prospects unduly. And although we’re not rich, we have enough money to spend on her support as required. When she needed speech therapy we could pay for private treatment rather than wait for the NHS to provide it. If she turns out to have artistic or (less likely) sporting talent we can probably afford to pay for lessons or equipment.
All this means that L has a good chance (if she wants to) of getting to a high-ranked university. If she is academically gifted, she also has a higher than average chance of getting to Oxbridge. What both my husband and I, as Oxford graduates can offer is not so much inside information on how to get in (since the admissions system constantly changes) as a more general understanding of Oxford and Cambridge. Perhaps most important is the proof we can offer that ‘people like us’ can go to Oxbridge, that it is not solely for those from a select few schools or with a particular accent.
L will get all these advantages without us needing to be particularly pushy. If we were really determined that she should go to Oxbridge rather than anywhere else, there are further things we could do to boost her chances. We could encourage her to apply for the less popular subjects and to the less popular colleges. We could pay for extra tutoring in some subjects, or for her to go on holiday courses etc. We could network and find people who had studied or taught her particular subject for her to meet. We could coach her in interview techniques. All this might boost her chances a little further, but it probably wouldn’t make a major difference.
Or we could spend thousands of pounds a year to send her to a public school (which would make a more substantial difference). But the fact is that even if we could afford to do that, we don’t really need to. If L wants an academic education she will be able to get a good one, either at Oxbridge or somewhere else. Her friends at school, who live in council houses, whose parents have lived in the same area all their lives and would feel uncomfortable away from it, who live on below average income, will probably not get that kind of higher education even if they have the aptitude for it.
Any simple demands to aid ‘state school’ applicants to Oxbridge will probably largely benefit children like L rather than those starting from a more disadvantaged background. Only measures targeting those from lower social classes and educational upbringing in a far more careful and long-term way will make a real change in which five year olds are on track for Oxbridge.