Elite public schools tighten grip on Oxford

Geraldine Hackett, Education Correspondent

Published March 2007

OXFORD’S attempts to rid itself of its reputation for giving preference to the “old school tie” have been dented by new figures showing it admitted almost twice as many Old Etonians last year as in 2001.

The number of pupils from Eton and other leading independent schools such as Westminster, St Paul’s and Winchester have surged despite efforts by the university to boost its state-school intake. While the overall proportion of state-school pupils has edged up slightly at Oxbridge, elite private institutions have notched up the greatest gains. The main losers have been less prestigious independent schools.

The figures suggest Gordon Brown’s outburst seven years ago against the “privileges” represented by Oxford has been counterproductive. The chancellor claimed it was an “absolute scandal” that Oxford had rejected Laura Spence, a talented Tyne-side comprehensive pupil. He said the university was “reminiscent of an old-boy network”.

While the elite schools insist their success is down to their teaching, Labour critics say Oxbridge has not done enough to encourage state-school pupils.

Barry Sheerman, Labour chairman of the Commons education select committee, blamed the universities for failing to broaden their intake. “Oxford and Cambridge shouldn’t be seen as finishing schools for Eton and Westminster,” he said.

The new data, released under the Freedom of Information Act, give a snapshot comparison between 2001 and 2006. Both universities reduced their independent sector intake by only 177 in that period.

The top-performing schools have achieved spectacular gains. In 2006, 70 pupils from Eton were offered places by Oxford, compared with 38 in 2001. At Westminster school 52 pupils received offers from Oxford, up by 14 from 2001.

There has also been an increase at Cambridge, although it is less marked. North London Collegiate school won 20 places there  in 2006, compared with 17 in 2001; St Paul’s school won 23, compared with 21.

The top school for Oxbridge last year was Westminster, where 60% of the upper sixth won offers from Oxford or Cambridge. Stephen Spurr, the head-master at Westminster, believes Oxbridge is not biased but is searching for the brightest applicants to maintain its position in the world rankings.

Tony Little, Eton’s head master, said he told pupils that a place at Oxford or Cambridge had to be earned. “There is no golden road. The clever dilettante doesn’t wash for Oxford now, if it ever did. We go far beyond the syllabus required for exams.”

Geoff Parks, director of admissions at Cambridge, denied the university was failing to give due credit to state school applicants.

“The best independent schools are stretching their most able pupils,” he said. “There are ways in which state-school pupils are not as well guided as applicants from independent schools. State schools have had to deal with a shortage of qualified maths and physics teachers. They have also been dropping languages.”

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