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Access All Areas, or Access Denied?

Posted by Kristina Murkett in

If you haven't seen The Riot Club yet, Laura Wade's parody of the Bullingdon Club - a hell-raising society of elite Oxford students who trash dining establishments beyond recognition, tossing a cheque at the owner on their way out - doesn't exactly do much for Oxbridge access schemes. Whilst these students undoubtedly represent a minority - 10 people in a university of 20,000 - there are still some unfortunate statistics which underpin the perception that it's more important - if you want to go to Oxbridge at least - to be born with a silver spoon in your mouth rather than a book in your hand.

For example, the Sutton Trust Charity revealed that in 2011, 5 schools in England sent more people to Oxford and Cambridge than 2000 other schools combined, exposing stark inequalities in exam results, and therefore university entrance. The results - a combination of A level grades and UCAS data - showed that four independent schools (Eton, Westminster, St Paul's Boys and St Paul's Girls) and state-funded Hills Road Sixth Form College in Cambridge sent 946 pupils to Oxbrdge over a 3 year period. On the other hand, the 2000 lower-performing schools in the case study combined managed less than this - many more sending no pupils at all.

Yet more recent figures from the BBC suggest that this isn't just an exclusively 'Oxbridge' problem. Not only did more than 1600 schools not send any pupils to Oxford or Cambridge, but about 335 failed to send any to a Russell Group university either. The results also indicate that 185 did not have any pupils who went on to what the Department of Education calls a 'top third' university - those institutions that demand the highest A-level or equivalent grades.

Of the 48% of students from state-funded schools and colleges who went to university, only 16% were at a 'top-third' institution, with 1% at Oxbridge and 11% at a Russell Group university. In comparison, out of the 60% of privately educated pupils who went on to study for a degree, 46% go to a 'top-third' institution, 5% are at Oxbridge, and 37% are at a Russell Group university.

Furthermore, there was a drop in the number of students from state-funded schools and colleges going to university at all - down from 53% last year to just under half. Statisticians point out that this may reflect the drop in student numbers in the year tuition fees were trebled to a maximum of £9,000 a year; but if the student loan system is implemented (and understood) correctly, then this should deter private and state-educated students equally.

Schools Minister David Laws seemed to praise the 'value' of the findings, arguing that 'it is crucial that parents have access to the information that lets them judge how well schools and colleges are preparing young people for the future.' Whilst this may be the case, we still need to address the reasons behind these imbalances, and ask ourselves why private school pupils continue to monopolize top university places. Is it the disparity in A-Level results? The quality of higher education access programmes? Expectation from parents who too went to university? A combination of all three?

Organizations such as Teach First preach that what you achieve in life should not be determined by what your parents earn, but still, in 2015, teenagers from the poorest families - those eligible for free school meals - are half as likely to progress on to any higher education course as relatively affluent classmates. The outlook is nonetheless less improving - the proportion of disadvantaged 18 year olds applying to university is at its highest level ever - but there is clearly still a long way to go.

Image courtesy of Flickr, Creative Commons