Leader: The best, the brightest and the brutal truth

September 21, 2007

Of all the troubling statistics uncovered by the Sutton Trust's report into elite schools' domination of research universities (page 4), this is the most shocking: a third more pupils are admitted to the top 13 universities, as defined by the trust, from the 30 best performing independent schools than would be expected given the schools' average A-level results. Conversely, just over half the pupils who would be expected from the 30 top comprehensives are admitted. Or sliced another way - a pupil from an independent school who gets two grades lower at A level than a state school pupil is as likely as the latter to go to a leading university.

For Oxbridge in particular, there is no shortage of brutal statistics: 100 elite schools supply a third of admissions to the two universities; ten schools alone provide 11 per cent of Oxford's intake; the proportion of entrants from top independent schools is almost twice that from the top grammar schools... The drumbeat of privilege is not pleasant to hear.

It is not surprising that independent school pupils achieve excellent A-level grades, given the rigorous selection they undergo and the time and money lavished on them. Nor is it surprising that their admission to universities is vastly disproportionate, given those excellent grades. What is - arresting is a polite word - is that their presence at those 13 universities in such numbers cannot be explained by exam grades alone (even taking into account variations arising from the use of average school performance rather than individual scores). And neither can the absence of a hefty proportion of their peers from state schools.

If A-level results alone cannot account for the discrepancy in numbers, what can? Unsurprisingly, many of the factors the trust identifies are firmly rooted in the different school systems. Independent school pupils develop confidence and a range of skills that simply are not part of the culture, or for which resources do not exist, in most state schools. There is, too, the perception among many comprehensive pupils that Oxbridge isn't for them, a prejudice reinforced by the trust's finding that many teachers and career advisers in the state sector mistakenly believe that public-school dominance of the two ancient universities is greater than it is in reality.

None of this can be laid at the door of our universities, most of which, Oxford and Cambridge prominent among them, have gone to great lengths to entice students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

But universities surely do have a case to answer if their admissions procedures amplify rather than ameliorate disadvantages inherent in our unequal school system. In particular, is it really necessary for Oxford and Cambridge to have separate, early admissions? The two routinely respond that the extra time allows for the interviews they both deem essential. As the use of scholastic aptitude tests becomes more widespread and allows tutors to discern abilities unregistered in the massed ranks of grade As, are they as necessary as they once were? Any insights gained from interviews have to be weighed against the realisation that they are the most subjective part of the admissions process.

Moreover, the determination of the universities to open their doors to a more representative student intake counts for little if college admissions tutors fail to echo it. Why, for example, is it that Keble, Hertford and St John's make nearly two thirds of their offers to state-school pupils, whereas Worcester, New and Pembroke are content with 46 per cent?

There will always be too few places at our top universities for people who want to study at them. Limited places are allocated according to perceived ability. But an admissions system that overstates the abilities of the coddled few and overlooks the talents of the undeveloped many beggars itself and the country.

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