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Want to Improve Oxbridge State School Admissions? Stop Patronising State-School Students

17/12/2015 15:33 GMT | Updated 17/12/2016 10:12 GMT

Stories about Oxbridge's rates of admissions usually wait until next year's rate of admissions has been published in order to castigate the two Universities purely because the bare percentage of state school admissions is judged by those pundits who seem to believe they know better than the admissions tutors who should and shouldn't be admitted to Oxbridge. Not so this year, with the Guardian reporting on a new report criticising the rate of state school admissions, and taking yet another opportunity to have a swipe at the Universities. Such reports are as predictable as they are misguided, and ultimately serve only to feed into an atmosphere where state school students are patronised and used as a political football for elements of the Left under the guise of "anti-elitism", both within and without Oxbridge.

In the first instance, it's worth putting out what a crude yardstick the bare rate of state school admissions is in judging who gets admitted into Oxford. The "state school" category contains both comprehensives - which vary wildly in teaching standards - as well as the surviving grammar schools in England (and the fully-functional grammar system of Northern Ireland, of which I am a product). Perhaps more importantly, the "private school" bracket contains far more than simply the famous schools listed in the Public Schools Act, and furthermore tells us nothing of the income or family circumstances of the students from independent schools, merely recording the fact that their school was independent. When we consider that around a third of all those on an Oxford Opportunity Bursary each year are from independent schools, surely we should see that the stereotype of private school attendees as being composed exclusively of the children of the elite is one that should be laid to rest.

Perhaps more damaging for Oxbridge, however, is the way that such figures are typically used to imply a conscious bias against state-educated students, despite no evidence to support this assertion, though using bare statistics to impute bias against groups is nothing new, especially from the student activist Left (with everything from Conservative Party Cabinets to Oxbridge, though notably not the lack of women at the top of Jeremy Corbyn's leadership team, being subjected to such analysis). However, imputing such a bias against Oxbridge is even more disingenuous than the typical correlation = causation fallacy, thanks to the lesser-known fact reported in a Parliamentary Report entitled Seven Key Truths About Social Mobility, namely that the rate of state school acceptances roughly mirrors the rate of such applications. Therefore, the question we should surely be asking is how to improve the rate of applications.

A serious answer to such a question surely needs to recognise, as much of the media hype surrounding Oxbridge does not, that the problem of the rate of applications is not Oxbridge's, but instead wider society's. The same Parliamentary Report referenced above also found, for instance, that the near-destruction of the English grammar school system, and the ending of state funding for independent day schools, also had significant negative effects on social mobility, but the question of reversing either of these decisions is all but unspeakable, based on the misguided assertion (most prominently by Sin Fein in Northern Ireland) that academic selection is inherently unfair; witness the controversy around the first new grammar school in England for decades, for instance.

What such an answer should not involve, however, are patronising measures such as quotas for state school admissions - as if it's a prima facie good to admit a state school student to Oxbridge above a student from an independent school - or lowering grade boundaries. Both measures ultimately presume that state school students are less capable than those from independent schools; that they can't reach the same level of application, or of academic achievement, respectively, so therefore require special measures to get into Oxbridge. Moreover, it assumes that Oxbridge somehow have a duty - incumbent on no other universities - to admit students who they believe are not best suited to the degree to which they applied, which creates a real risk of harming the education of said student by placing them in an unsuitable environment purely so that Oxbridge "looks better" to critical media pundits.

But such patronising attitudes to state school students don't stop once you're through the Oxbridge door, as I discovered to my chagrin with the Subfusc Off campaign in Oxford's recent academic dress referendum, with one of the main arguments used by the anti-Subfusc campaign being that it was "intimidating" to state school students, a suggestion which was offensive to myself and other state school students (as evidenced by some of the messages the campaign to Save Subfusc received), who, on the contrary, saw subfusc as a positive (evidenced by the large margin of victory in the best-attended referendum in English SU history).

However, such criticisms of Oxford by its own Radical Left as being "inaccessible" - often centred on the University's traditions - was far from uncommon during my three years of attendance, and also incredibly patronising, supposing that Oxford had to do away with its ancient traditions - traditions with which few universities are blessed - and become like any other university in the name of "access". Never once do such assertions consider that Oxford's history and traditions are one of the main draws for many prospective applicants; it's as close to Harry Potter as any of us will experience. Indeed, one of the main appeals of Oxford is precisely that it isn't like the stereotypical modern university, and the idea that state school students inherently prefer the latter (as attacks on traditions must surely, to a greater or lesser degree, presuppose), are without merit and, once again, patronising, suggesting that academic tradition is the preserve of the traditional elites, and not something which others can welcome rather than be intimidated by.

But perhaps those most at fault in actually intimidating state school students are the media outlets which focus so much of their attention on the bare rate of admissions themselves, unless we're going to argue that the appalling rates at which teachers at state schools discourage Oxbridge applications just come out of thin air. On the contrary, when we consider that the Guardian has a section on its website entitled "Oxbridge and elitism" (as if the two are synonymous), and every year we hear that Oxbridge hate state school students based purely on the percentage of their intake they make up, it should come as no surprise that many state school students are actively discouraged from applying. But, then again, when you have a confirmation bias that you can fulfil among your readers every year to great commercial success, such mundane concerns about actually helping improve social mobility rather than cementing social divisions are evidently secondary ones.

But this is the world we live in, where state school students often seem little more than a political football, or a homogenous bloc the voices of which can be appropriated by critics of Oxbridge admissions and traditions, rather than tackle the issues which actually prevent more state school students applying. In order to actually tackle these issues, we surely need to first tackle the patronising and politicising of state school admissions in the first place, and realise that the problems of social mobility today go far deeper than Oxbridge.

Here is my speech on a similar topic from last Hilary Term at the Oxford Union