State school students more likely to achieve a First at Oxford than independent schoolers

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Jonathan Clifton is a research fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR)

Evidence shows that, based on similar GCSE grades, students from state schools are more likely to achieve a first-class degree at Oxford University than students from independent schools, yet top universities are still favouring the students from privileged backgrounds.

Speaking earlier this week, Nick Clegg criticised universities for not accepting enough pupils from state schools. Renewing his social mobility strategy, Clegg announced that universities will be penalised if they fail to meet targets for increasing the proportion of pupils they admit from disadvantaged backgrounds.

This proposal was greeted with a predictable response from independent schools, who argued that the government is engaged in “old style communist tactics” of social engineering, and that it should focus on improving state education “rather than capping the achievements of pupils in independent schools”. On a similar note, the CPS argued that “Britain can’t afford to drag down its best schools in the name of equality”.

Before trotting out such arguments, these commentators would do well to take a look at this graph from Tom Ogg and his colleagues – it shows the probability of getting a first at Oxford University based on GCSE grades:


It shows that pupils from state schools are more likely to get a first class degree than pupils from independent schools with the same GCSE grades. The question then becomes: why are universities selecting those students who are less likely to get a First? Why are they not admitting students on the basis of their potential to succeed?


See also:

Left-wing snobbery does state schools no favours 15 May 2012

Subject choice plummets across the UK as the government fails universities 23 Feb 2012

Cameron needs to start backing our young people and universities 18 Jan 2012


As Jonathan Portes points out in this excellent blog, this shows there is indeed social engineering in our education system – but it works in favour of those from independent schools:

“What the data and evidence suggest is that Oxford is already engaging in ‘social engineering’ in favour of private school pupils. It has an admissions process that favours them and admits them even though they are less likely to get good degrees.”

So long as this fact holds true, Nick Clegg’s focus on university admissions will be justified.


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  • Julian

    You are suggesting that state school GCSE grades are given more weight in university application than independent school grades. That may be ok on average but this is just an average. Someone getting a B grade at a poor state school may well be Oxbridge material but someone getting a B at a good state school will not be. The only answer is to make the GCSE an accurate assessment of a pupil’s ability and potential, not to try to compensate poorly for the fact that it is not. That can only be done by “focusing on improving state school education”, which you disparage.

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  • Anonymous

    I have mixed feelings. As someone who went to a failing state school (it was on special measures and got closed down by Ofsted 2 years after I left) and got the top GCSE grades in my year with just below an A/A* average, I’d obviously tend to agree that Oxford should look more towards state school pupils with good results. On the other hand I do think improving state schools is the bigger issue for the vast majority of the pupils they serve, at my old school there were about 10 people who would make it onto this chart at all out of a group of over 200 and apart from me they’d all be in the bottom half of the graph. I know this because those of us who made it onto the chart were all invited to the school personally to collect our grades early and have photos taken for the local newspaper. All the people in that group went on to get good A-levels and go to good non-Oxbridge universities and they now all have good professional jobs or are studying for advanced degrees. If me or any of the others had been given the chance to go to Oxbridge I’m sure it would have given us an extra boost but in the grand scheme of things were all doing an awful lot better than the majority of pupils that didn’t make it onto the chart, which is why I think that improving state schools is really more important, especially for those at the bottom. I’m sure Clegg’s heart is in the right place but he’s focusing on the glamourous end of the problem where he gets to give out the prizes and have the photo opportunities with the relatively well to do amongst the disadvantaged rather than working putting in the hard unglamorous work to improve things for those who really suffer in bad state schools.

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  • Bryson

    As someone who has been through the state school system, went through the Oxford application process and got an offer to study there, I think Nick Clegg’s ideas about lowering the entry criteria for state school pupils is insulting. Why? Because it’s saying that those of us who get offers receive them on the basis of our background and not on academic merit. I don’t want to be considered second class and let’s face it, if a candidate does not achieve 3 As then they aren’t suitable for Oxford or Cambridge, with the workload and the intellectual challenges placed upon them. Where private/independent schools have the advantage is that they encourage and push their students a lot more to apply to top universities, the state school I went to was reasonably good overall and provided us with interview technique and practice interviews but I am aware a lot of schools do not. Ultimately state schools need to be improved and as a Labour supporter it saddens me that after 13 years of the Labour government this is still the case.

  • Anonymous

    The truth is that Oxford does bias its entrance policy *in favour* of pupils from state schools, particularly those with poor academic record as it reckons anyone gets an A and 2 Bs from a sink school is a super-achiever. Have you forgotten that was the excuse for giving a place to David Miliband with three D’s at A level?

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