"Education. Education. Education."
This was the cornerstone of New Labour, a platform for unprecedented levels of social mobility, which helped prepare the way for Tony Blair's landslide victory in the 1997 general election.
So why are we still in a situation where 83% of Oxbridge students are from only 400 elite schools? The answer is complex. What is clear, however, is that the system is failing a generation of talented state school pupils and thousands of students are still being denied the social mobility opportunities that Oxbridge can provide. These students are being excluded by their school catchment area, social and economic background and the public pressure on Oxbridge colleges to meet state school admissions quotas.
This problem is compounded by Oxbridge's unique application process, something which many state schools have only minimal understanding of. The best independent and selective schools have a great deal of experience in preparing aspiring Oxbridge candidates. Talented and able pupils from schools without these expert resources are consequently left at an enormous disadvantage.
State schools with a poor track record of sending students to Oxbridge often struggle to provide comprehensive admissions support to potential applicants. Aside from the disparity in resource, there is another, often overlooked, reason for why state school pupils are failing to gain admission to Oxbridge: confidence. It may sound intangible, yet it is having a very real impact on state school pupils applying for the very best universities.
Many schools feel more comfortable putting forward their best students for second or third tier universities. This is often a reflection of a teacher's own negative experience of Oxbridge applications which is, inadvertently, passed on to future generations.
Further challenges arise outside of the school system. Pupils from overlooked state schools also tend to be from more disadvantaged, lower income backgrounds. They are less likely to know any Oxbridge graduates or students, let alone have access to an entire network. This leaves them without the considerable benefit of anecdotal insight, both into the application process and life at an elite university.
Without any broad Oxbridge contacts, an applicant's ability to navigate the thorough and testing admissions process is severely hampered. Perhaps more damaging is its contribution to the Oxbridge 'myth'. This is an idea that the spires and arches of Christ Church College and King's College, Cambridge are an impregnable modern day Hogwarts. This myth alone can be enough to dissuade a talented state school pupil from applying, fearful of feeling out of place in a world of which they have no knowledge or experience. Many pupils harbour strong anxieties that even if their application is successful they will not fit in to their new elitist surroundings.
Regrettably, we are yet to tackle arguably the biggest obstacle facing most state school pupils, the admissions targets. Oxbridge College Access programmes are incentivised to target state school pupils but many schools with no history of sending students to Oxbridge are still being overlooked. As a result, only a tiny minority of state schools have a consistently impressive record for sending pupils to Oxbridge. These schools dominate the state school admissions to Oxbridge year after year. The result? A whole pool of talented and able state school educated pupils from the 87% of schools is passed over.
There is no easy solution to these obstacles. But what is clear is the need for a disruptive influence. The current situation has to change. It is hard to see this coming from schools that have no understanding of how the Oxbridge process works. Nor will it come from a system designed by targets and bureaucratic necessity. We need ideas from outside the modus operandi. Applicants from state schools are best served by those with an inside knowledge who want to change the norm from outside.