What’s the issue with working class students and Oxbridge?

With A level results day here I wanted to write a post about something that’s quite important to me as far as the role that university plays in social mobility. I’m not advocating that all students should go on to formalised higher education, there are lots of really great routes out there and these should be tailored to the individual. However, I do feel strongly that addressing the under-representation of groups on a wider societal level starts with the representation of these groups in education when selection becomes a factor. Furthermore, this is not a post suggesting that all students should aspire to Oxbridge, I merely want to pose a few thoughts as to perhaps why certain demographics of young people are under-represented at Oxford and Cambridge and I’d like to look at what we in state schools can do to address this.

I’ve always upheld a cynical view of Oxbridge admissions. A view supported by the belief that students from state schools were at a disadvantage throughout the selection process. Admissions statistics released by the University of Oxford this year only served to confirm my suspicions.

We often seek evidence to support our bias rather than challenge it but the reality is that not enough students from state schools (particularly from certain groups) make it into Oxford and Cambridge. In an effort to see what we could do in our own setting I attended The Sutton Trust’s Teacher Summer School run by The University of Oxford in July of this year. I very quickly realised that my opinions were formed with an abundance of bias and without many facts. This two day conference was aimed at getting more students from less-advantaged backgrounds into Oxford. The event itself was illuminating. There was a sense of earnest across the whole Admissions Team, an acceptance that groups of students from certain backgrounds are failing to apply for or achieve places and this simply isn’t good enough. They faced the statistics head on – there’s no getting away from the gaps, however, throughout the two days the entire team displayed a steely determination to address this. There are a multitude of strategies planned to tackle the deficits which range from education programmes (for students and teachers) to enhanced recruitment and support events. Additionally the team have developed online packages such as Oxplore and Ignite to support students and teachers in preparing for those intimidating interviews. With various experience opportunities for sixth form students and a drive to raise awareness of the financial support available the team at Oxford are hoping to reap the rewards of their hard work with state schools over the coming years but are realistic about the fact that this will take time. For the time being though, the efforts of the team are still not hitting the mark…

A theory: why there aren’t more state school students applying and why aren’t those who do more successful?

I’m going to be quite controversial here and say that I don’t think the blame lies with Oxford and Cambridge. In my opinion, the crux of the problem lies with schools and their students. It is influenced by two main factors: a lack of awareness/knowledge and the comfort of familiarity.

Preparation for UCAS applications is driven by teachers and tutors. In the state sector we try to serve too many purposes – covering all bases. This is most apparent in the disproportionate amount of time allocated to personal statements and references at the cost of interview and test preparation. We also try to provide a safety net for those students who aren’t offered a place with personal statements that will be attractive to other universities too.

Teachers’ lack of knowledge about the contributing factors of the application and their weighting can disadvantage those students who would be considered Oxbridge material.

Students’ lack of knowledge is also a limiting factor. A great deal of discussion over the course of the conference was on the super-curricular. This is used to describe learning beyond what is prescribed by our National Curriculum and GCSE/GCE programmes of study. One could argue that this within itself is elitist and favours independent schools. Clearly, state schools are limited to what they can teach in the time that we are given. However, a culture of teaching to pass a test and the deprofessionalisation of teachers through generalised, rather than subject specific CPD in some schools has also contributed to this. Teachers’ subject knowledge must go beyond the qualification they are teaching – good teaching leads to successful learning. Ask yourself, how equipped are we to push our students beyond what they need to know to pass the test? Here, the foundations need be developed early not in Year 12, our children deserve the opportunity to achieve their potential and it’s our job to get them there. The development of a broad and balanced curriculum, rich in knowledge is a step in the right direction for all sorts of reasons and not just for the most able students.

So why not more applications? I was particularly interested in this when I was presented with the following infographic:

This shows the number of students who achieved A level grades which would make them eligible for offers from Oxford. Now look at the trends below in the applications and accepted offers:

Selfishly, I considered students from the North West with 3595 (7.2% of the overall) being eligible to apply. Out of those who could, only 972 did and only 200 received/accepted offers. This is a similar picture for many northern parts of the country. Why are so few students applying? I believe one factor which is often overlooked is the fact that familiarity has a significant part to play. Many students opt to stay local, choosing universities far enough from their home to give independent living but quite often within a safe distance from the region of their birth. There isn’t anything wrong with this but we can hardly blame Oxford for the lack of applications. This could also be a contributing factor behind the largest number of applications coming from London, the East and South East – Oxford is familiar to students in the neighbouring regions. Obviously we must acknowledge that population density as this is also a contributing factor.

The issue of students staying in their region has been exacerbated by universities offering unconditional places to students who show promise. This is unethical practice in my opinion and promotes an unhealthy attitude among students. The rise in unconditional offers has increased from 2,985 in 2013 to 67,915 in 2018 as Sir John Dunford wrote in the TES yesterday. This can hardly be good for students’ aspirations or motivations.

If institutions like Oxford are facing this type of competition why not lower entrance expectations, especially for those groups identified as being significantly low?

There have been calls from many for Oxford and Cambridge to positively discriminate in favour of the most underrepresented groups. So why not? How many Sixth Forms attached to schools have lowered entrance criteria to include more students only to see those weaker students struggle with A level courses? Have you ever felt the guilt of allowing a student onto your course only to watch them continually fail and ultimately have to leave? If you have, you’ll know exactly why Oxford and Cambridge have to maintain their standards. They’re also meritocracies, lowering standards for certain groups of students would only devalue the achievements of these young people. It’s important to note here that there are key indicators that Oxford take into account when offering interviews favouring students who have faced disadvantage for one reason or another, however, this only provides the opportunity, the student still has to prove their worth. Nonetheless, there is a vicious cycle which exists in universities – students apply where they feel comfortable, where they fit in. If a prospective candidate sees that there are only small numbers of students like them attending a university then perhaps they would be less inclined to apply? This is a hurdle that we must address together: schools, colleges and the institutions themselves.

Anecdotally, one of the issues that state school students face when they go to interview is being intimidated by the confidence students from other backgrounds exude. The experience of the interview process is not the reality of life at Russell Group universities from our students’ feedback. Yet the way a student feels during this couple of days can have a significant impact on their interview performance and their decision whether to accept an offer. A great piece of advice I received during the summer school from one of the professors was to get students to focus on Oxford’s Student Ambassadors rather than their perceived competition as these young people were much more representative of the University’s population. As a teacher, I have encouraged students not be intimidated by competition (particularly those from independent schools) but I see now that this was the wrong emphasis to make because I was reinforcing a misguided focus.

What are my takeaways and what can schools do differently?

  1. Preparation needs to start early for the most able students and this should be integral to curriculum planning – this will not only help Oxbridge and Russell Group preparation but will give all students a broad and balanced education, good preparation for life.
  2. Personal statements should focus on a student’s passion for the subject and their super-curricular work around this. References should act as triangulation for students’ claims and this should be further evidenced in both the specific tests and interview.
  3. The biggest factors in a student receiving a place at Oxford are academic performance (external examinations and entrance tests) and the interview so schools should apportion time accordingly. There are lots of practice tests on the Oxford website so students can start to prepare early.
  4. Interviews focus on content rather than delivery – rather than preparing students to deliver a good speech, schools would do well to encourage students to think deeply about their chosen field, to form opinions based on a variety of reliable sources and to be able to consider alternative viewpoints. Tutors can spot style without substance a mile off.
  5. Students shouldn’t worry too much about how they compare to others (in both appearance and language) and just focus on what is being asked of them. Preparation needs to reassure students but not emphasise the less important details.
  6. Use the support that’s being offered – the day after I got back I contacted the outreach representative for the northwest and arranged workshops for students from both sixth form and our main school. The support is out there, you only have to ask!
  7. Build relationships with universities, not just Oxford and Cambridge. All universities invest a great deal of time in student recruitment and are more than happy to talk to students about university life.
  8. It’s never to early to plant the seed. Start early with students, why not take a group of year 7 children to visit a university? Let them fall in love with where learning can take them before teenage angst sets in!
  9. Give students solid, unbiased advice. Too often I’ve influenced students’ university choices without even realising it. From now on I’m going to encourage students to look beyond their locality – there’s lots more choice than we ourselves know about and we can limit students’ considerations with our own bias.
  10. If we want to make change happen it’s up to us to affect the change – rather than being angry and frustrated when students don’t get offers we need to fully understand the processes and do all we can to develop successful future applications.

Still more to be done…

There’s still lots more work to be done when addressing the significantly lower numbers of students from particular groups attending Oxford, and indeed Russell Group universities. I think that Sir John Dunford made excellent points about the university admissions process in yesterday’s TES, all of which would support increased success of applications from students of less advantaged backgrounds. There has been a sea-change, certainly my experience of the collaboration between Oxford and The Sutton Trust indicates the desire to proactively address the elephant in the room. The impact of their work will be limited sadly if schools and colleges don’t take the opportunity to get involved in being the catalyst for change. I personally feel that universities need to be a presence in schools, particularly in areas of deprivation and of historically low application. This cannot happen piecemeal, universities have to do more than pay lip service to initiatives by working hard to get into schools – educating and inspiring both students and teachers alike. Additionally, schools need to make this happen, we need to be welcoming our HEIs with open arms as well as businesses and colleges who can provide apprenticeships and vocational courses too. We need to give our young people the information so that they can make considered choices and we need to educate them with the knowledge that will equip them to succeed in their pathways. Sadly, all of this takes time we often don’t have so for everything we attribute time to we have to take it away from elsewhere – never enough hours in the day!

From what I’ve learned this year The University of Oxford and The Sutton Trust are already quietly working towards improving opportunities for students, as is the case with most of our HEIs. The challenge now is to join this up with the work we are doing in schools and colleges. To do this we must open up lines of communication and continue to build on existing relationships. There’s so much on offer for key stage 5 students, it’s our job to uncover the opportunities and nurture the highest aspirations in our young people.