Are private schools really 400 times more successful than comprehensives?

It was reported on Radio 4 this morning that a study by the Sutton Trust shows that the top five schools in the country, four of whom are fee-paying, send more students to Oxbridge than two thirds of all comprehensive schools. Quoting the Mail Online “Top five schools that fill Oxford and Cambridge: They take more places than 2000 comprehensives combined. This shows that a student improves his or her chances of studying at Oxbridge 400 times if he or she was to attend one of these schools in comparison to one of 2000 comprehensive schools in the country.

What worries many parents is that, in terms of potential future earnings, some people at the top earn 400 times more than some people at the very bottom, often within one particular company. Whilst money is not everything, this is a serious issue as high earners have more choices about everything in life. I always said to young people that: the good thing about achieving highly in education is that it gives you more choices in life. It is not just the amount of money you earn or the car you drive. The level of confidence, satisfaction and self-worthiness that education gives you cannot be measured by your bank balance.

While this is shocking, it does not surprise me at all that the disparity in opportunity for access to the top universities is what many people who are interested in the education system have known for a very long time. About 15 years ago, I was teaching at a grammar school in Buckinghamshire I was amazed about the number of students who gained admission to Oxford and Cambridge every year, when compared with the so-called good comprehensive school where I used to teach before then. My suspicion was confirmed when I moved to a fee-paying school and saw very bright children being rejected despite a prediction of 4 A grades, which was not as common then as is the case now.

Oxford and Cambridge have admission policies that try to compensate for the deficiencies in state schools by offering lower grades to students from state schools and rejecting some high fliers from fee-paying schools. This policy is quite acceptable as it gives a helping hand to children from less privileged backgrounds who are bright enough to do well at university. Despite this discretion by top universities, a student still has much higher chances of going to a Russell Group university if they attend a public school (fee-paying). It would just be good for parents to be aware of this so they can make an informed decision before forking out thousands of pounds in fees to an independent school.

I met a potential parent earlier this week and I felt for him as he sat in front of me in my study, the exact words he uttered were: “My daughter said to me that when I asked my class teacher what I need to do to go to University of London when I leave school, the teacher looked into my face and said that this type of university is not for you.’ I wonder if the teacher had asked her to consider Thames Valley or Southbank! Considering the child in question is only 12 years old, I wonder if this will stay in her memory for the rest of her life, and how this may affect her self-esteem. The girl in question felt strongly enough about that conversation with her teacher that she mentioned it to her father. I cannot imagine the sadness this man must have felt when his daughter told him this story.

I do not at all blame the Russell Group universities, including Oxford and Cambridge. I think they are doing more than enough to be more inclusive and offer places to young people from a variety of backgrounds. Blatant positive discrimination will never solve the problem, not only will it make people who are not from the conventional background for these universities feel inferior to their peers, it will also create some sort of resentment on both sides.

A lecturer in charge of admission from Leeds University was interviewed on Radio 4 this morning. He cited subjects taken by sixth-form students as well as the grades they are likely to obtain as the major factors in offering them a place.

It is OK for a student to study IT, Media Studies and Photography at A-level at the expense of English, Maths, Chemistry and History, if the young person in question is informed and knows about the likely consequences. I believe that head teachers and parents have a responsibility to advise young people about their subject choices if they want them to have a good chance of gaining admission to the top universities.

To read Mr Musty’s blog on Oxford admission, please click here