Why I...believe the government is right to turn the spotlight on Oxford

June 2, 2000

Labour MP for Croydon Central and a member of the House of Commons public accounts committee.

As the only pupil from my comprehensive to be made an offer to Oxford University in 1979, I approached Oxford on the assumption that it was a class-ridden bastion of prejudice.

My school, Llanishen High, Cardiff, had been a secondary modern and the prospect of being at Oxford with a predominance of public school hooray henries, a shortage of female students and the lack of a central student union did not hugely appeal at 18.

Nevertheless, I sat the entrance exam and was invited for interview. The fact that the suit in the cupboard of my room fitted me made me wonder whether it had been placed there as part of a plot. Was I supposed to wear it to the interview so the toffs could have a laugh? Outside the interview room I remember the previous interviewee leaving followed by howls of laughter from behind the closed door. Through a broad smile the interviewer asked me: "If factorial 100 is 100 x 99 x 98 x 97 etc then how many zeros has it got on the end?"

I was offered a place at Jesus College and accepted it on the asssurance from my head of sixth form that I could transfer to another university if things did not work out. I felt a bit out of place until I met someone from Splott, probably the poorest part of Cardiff. In fact, by 1979, Jesus was very different from the Oxford of just five years earlier. Half the students were women, with a good proportion from state schools. I soon made friends and met my wife Vanessa there. Despite arranging for the punk rock band from my old school to play in college, I was voted in as junior common room president.

Looking back, my experience suggests that Oxford needs to work harder to encourage schools to put their best candidates forward. Many pupils do not apply because they assume that they will not fit in or will not get in when neither may be the case. In fact, offers to state school pupils mirror the proportion of applications. For October 2000, 61 per cent of applicants and 59 per cent of offers made by Jesus College were from state schools compared with 46.9 per cent and 48.5 per cent for Oxford overall.

Naturally, state schools tend to limit their applications to pupils they expect to get at least three grade As at A level. But while the state educates nine out of ten pupils, it produces just 53 per cent of pupils with three grade As or above. It needs more resources and more ambition to get a much greater share of Oxford places, and the government is facing up to this obligation.

Only 10 per cent of those who get three As at A level or higher are from socioeconomic groups C1, C2, D, and E and Oxbridge only gives places to a quarter of them. The fact that 90 per cent of pupils with three As are from the AB category indicates that even Oxford places to those from state schools are dominated by the upper-middle classes. There is a challenge here that schools and Oxford need to face up to.

State students may expect that, having got into Oxford on the back of a less privileged education, they will do better than a public school entrant once they are in an equal environment. The empirical question is the extent to which state school students on average achieve better degrees at Oxford and how this should be factored into selection procedures. Jesus College takes a much higher proportion of state students than most Oxford colleges and topped all colleges in the Norrington table of exam results in 1998 - this after many years in the top three. Oxford needs to retain interviews as part of its admissions procedure but the skill of the best interviewer must be to peel back public school bravado and to account for unequal backgrounds in selecting those with most potential.

The government is right to turn the spotlight on Oxbridge. It is one of the most successful academic institutions in the world and its entry procedures must not only be fair, they must be seen to be fair.

* Was Gordon Brown right to turn the spotlight on Oxford's admissions procedures last week? Email us on soapbox@thes.co.uk

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