State schools' gripe with Oxbridge entry

February 10, 1995

As the head of a state comprehensive school with a good record of examination success and which regularly puts forward candidates for entry both to Oxford and Cambridge, I find Ruth Deech's remarks (THES, December 23) a little difficult to take.

Mrs Deech is right that the Oxford entrance examination does "not fit in with state school traditions" - for one simple reason: we have not the resources to prepare students for it.

Even though our sixth form numbers more than 200, budget pressures require us to share the teaching of some A-level courses with other schools and to ensure that those courses we teach entirely ourselves have group sizes of about 17 to 20. We certainly cannot afford teacher time to prepare individuals for the Oxford entrance examination.

Given that we are well aware that the independent sector is able to devote time to such preparation it is not surprising that we opt for the conditional offer route for our students. We are not "fearful of the entrance examination": we simply know that for our students the playing field is not level if we choose this option.

As for inflating predicted grades, records show that this is a practice which this school does not go in for - indeed, parents sometimes accuse us of being ungenerous. We try to give the benefit of the doubt, but the assessment is always honest. In terms of its effect on the chances of our students obtaining an offer Mrs Deech's remarks suggest that we have got it wrong.

It is sad to have to rethink our belief that a realistic prediction (and not all high-quality candidates get grade A in every subject) combined with a searching interview may bring fair results.

This brings me to another disappointing feature of what seems to be current practice at both Oxford and Cambridge: the over narrow interview. A majority of our 13 Oxbridge applicants reported back to us that their interviews were totally focused on the subject they had chosen to study and were academically extremely demanding.

I have no argument with the latter and I expect students to be probed to determine their potential to study their chosen subject, but I am less certain whether it is reasonable to expect a detailed technical knowledge at age 18 of a subject such as philosophy.

Most of all I find it disappointing that Oxbridge admissions tutors, in contrast to many at other universities, seem very little interested in "the whole man (or woman)".

Should we stop telling our students that universities are interested in admitting students with wide cultural and sporting interests and a healthy and critical outlook on the world around them?

Incidentally, of our 13 Oxbridge applicants this year five have obtained conditional offers. We are quite pleased, but several students of enormous potential will not go to Oxbridge. Now if we had been able to teach them one to one . . .


Finham Park School

Green Lane


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