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As someone who teaches undergraduates it is clear that, in many cases, school is not preparing them well for university. I teach a statistics course for politics students, many of whom are intimidated by basic numeracy - and this is at a good university!

The differences are greatest in year one, where students who are ready for university fly ahead without much effort while others struggle.

If we want university admissions to be more representative of society we need to fix:

1) the weakness of secondary schools in deprived areas

2) the downgrading of requirements to get to university (a C in GCSE maths evidently does not prepare students for dealing with numbers)

3) encouragement of students taking gap years, or enrolling later, to encourage more maturity and independence at university

And perhaps change the admissions process to raise ambition. If we had a SAT-style admissions test at 17 talented students from poor backgrounds would be more likely to apply than they are now.

"3) encouragement of students taking gap years, or enrolling later, to encourage more maturity and independence at university"

I confess to having a very cynical attitude to gap years. In many cases they just seem to be an excuse to go on a jolly to tropical paradises and delay the inevitable. (That isn't to deny that gap years can be useful.) Very few people I know who went to university bothered with a gap year and they certainly didn't seem any less independent than those that did.

Congratulations to John Hayes.

He's such a diligent frontbencher.

Whether at housing, skills or now higher education he's a great master of briefs.

Sounds an interesting speech but consider that when he says: "Traditional full-time learning in a leafy campus somewhere clearly isn't suitable for those who work, have families or can't afford to live away from home" the first and third of these three points are only so much more relevant because of the drastic reduction in State financial support, i.e. tuition fees etc, that has come in in the last 20 years.

"Full time learning on a leafy campus" (or even in a crowded metropolis or a small city in the Midlands or East Anglia) should not be a priority for people who do not have academic aptitude. But it's great for the minority who do and, if they have that aptitude, they shouldn't be diluting their potential by working in term time or, indeed, cramping their opportunity to forge their own life by living at home. The tragedy is that opportunity for the academically gifted, particularly from poorer backgrounds, is being hobbled by expansion mania and misguided public expenditure priorities.

I'm glad to hear of someone standing up to the government's ridiculous scapegoating of our elite higher eduation institutions for the government's failure to deliver social aspiration. How can it be *Oxford's* fault that the school system so disempowers people from less privileged backgrounds that they don't even think it's worth applying to Oxford, even though the admissions system bends over backwards (and more) to try to get them to apply and get them in? The government is blatently trying to cover up the failings of its own secondary education policy by trying to smear someone else.

More of this, please!

I grew up on a run down council estate in the north of England - my father worked a manual job and my mother on the tills at Asda on Saturdays - I studied Economics at Cambridge, interviewing in 2000 and matriculating in 2001. That the two universities are biased against those born less privileged is patently absurd.

Gordon Brown's comments in 2000 will have done a great deal to damage admissions to the better universities, whose application procedures pick out the best candidates rather than the politically correct ones. By telling people they don't have a chance of getting in he will have discouraged them from trying - idiotic man.

Gordon Brown's rhetoric is part of a wider problem in this regard. Teachers, with a grudge against the two universities do a lot to discourage pupils from applying, telling them that they wont get in because they don't have the right accent, parents or educational background. I had a number of friends at other schools who achieved excellent A-level results but were dissuaded from applying to Oxbridge colleges.

On another note, the real flaw in HE and FE policy during the last 10 years has been a very narrow focus on getting people into university to study a degree course no matter what their academic aptitude may be. This has necessitated ever falling standards and a proliferation of useless degrees. It's a big argument but really we need admissions into universities to fall and participation in other kinds of further education and life-long learning schemes to rise. Ho-hum.

Posted by: John W | April 30, 2008 at 10:19

Teachers, with a grudge against the two universities do a lot to discourage pupils from applying, telling them that they wont get in because they don't have the right accent, parents or educational background. I had a number of friends at other schools who achieved excellent A-level results but were dissuaded from applying to Oxbridge colleges.

It's funny, that, because given identical A-level results, people from State schools are less likely to be offered a place through Oxbridge. Perhaps it's because the interviewers (disproportionately ex-public school boys) think they have "don't have the right accent, parents or educational background."

It's this prejudice which the Oxbridge system needs to address, explicitly.

Would "passing leftie" please source the statement he makes? I have never seen it stated before, and frankly do not believe it. It also rings a bit hollow bearing in mind that about 95% of all successful Oxbridge candidates now have the same best three "A" levels - 3 As. And is he saying predicted the same results or actually getting them? Most places are given on predicted grades. And is it subject for subject?

In the absence of firm evidence, he is just doing a Brown - i.e. asserting something which puts off people applying. Thereby perpetuating the social make-up which is so helpful to the class war/envy politics which Brown, Leavingsoon, Polly Toynbee et al still represent.

Did you actually read my comment you moron: It is teachers in most state schools who discourage perfectly able pupils from applying not those interviewing who turn them away.

The three fellows who interviewed me were:
1. A middle aged american who had been to state school.
2. A middle aged english woman who had been to a grammar school.
3. An elderly englishman who had been to a public school.

Doesn't seem to be disproportionately ex public school boys does it?

I know because I took the care to become friends with them once I had started - you see Cambridge is a place where people from all different backgrounds mix as equals. I then went on to work with my DoS and admissions officer to get more people from my area who went to state schools (as I did) to apply. The colleges spend a huge amount of money on this every year and the biggest opposition they come up against is teachers in state schools determined to drag their pupils down to the level of higher education that they had. Passing Leftie and Gordon Brown proclaiming that less well to do applicants stand less chance of getting in is part of this horrendous untruth.

The reason that 'given identical A-level results, people from State schools are less likely to be offered a place through Oxbridge' is because state schools are more prone to teaching to the test rather than giving a proper education. As somebody has commented above the government criticizes the application processes at our best universities to cover up its own terrible record on education.

Allow me to remind you again: grew up on a Northern council estate, attended local state school, went to Cambridge, fit in perfectly.

There is no systematic prejudice in the entrance to Oxbridge colleges, it is the lie that there is which needs addressing explicitly.

I'd be interested to know how many predicated A grade students get into Oxford or Cambridge without at least a GCSE language qualification A*, or an A level taken and passed early prior to interview?

When you have widening access chats they often come too late for state school pupils (eg after they choose their GCSE options), the state school students don't have the same level of careers guidance that is available at private, or grammar schools and the children aren't advised of the preferential tick box qualifications that Oxbridge rate highly.

In my experience state school teachers are very enthusiastic and encouraging about Oxbridge applications.

However, they don't prepare students years in advance with extra reading material for example, so if there is no guidance to the applicant from some party known to them, early enough to take advantage of, they are disadvantaged.

I attended John Hayes' excellent presentation at Birkbeck College.

It was a speech from the heart as John is a first generation graduate. The priviledged Guardian reading Socialist elite would do well to take note of his points.

Poorer children are not being excluded from University due to intrinsic snobbery by admissions operatives. Labour cannot see any other reason than bias against poorer children as their policy makers tend not to come from underprivileged families.

Hard as it is for Labour's rich Guardianistas to understand, poorer families cannot afford for their children to delay earning a living for three years.

For the slightly better off families, being saddled with student debt is not an option. These people are more than likely struggling to keep a roof over their heads. With Brown's stealth taxes and poor management of our economy, making ends meet for more and more families is becoming impossible.

John's ideas should be put into practice to ensure every child has a chance to make the best of their talents. His solutions are based on the problems faced by real people and the realities of living on limited means. They are not based on fantasy class war theories dreamt up in the expensive drawing rooms of Islington.

John Hayes is right when he says there is no evidence to suggest that universities discriminate against lower income students. The important thing is to ensure that students are in university because they have the ability and potential to finish the course, rather than working to some notional Government target of 50%, which focuses on quantity at the expense of quality.

Likewise, as many have already pointed out - we must also ensure those going onto FE have a good grasp of the basics and entry requirements are not watered down any further than they already have been.

Once there was a time that a degree was a sign of excellence rather than elitism as suggested by this Labour Government. Employers knew that graduates would be of the highest quality - now those same employers do not have the same high levels of confidence in the university system under Labour than they had in previous generations. That is bad for our universities, bad for business and bad for Britain and our place in the world.

We are already witnessing a shift in the balance of power from the West to the East. Britain must be prepared for the challenges that lye ahead with a highly skilled and educated workforce - failure to meet these needs will result in Britain becoming an economic backwater.

To quote a fellow leftie:

The stats are here -


To save you the trouble - Intake from state schools for Cambridge 56% and Oxford 53%.

And here -


Again to save you clicking - Total children in fee paying education is just over 500,000 and that amounts to 7% of the school age population (more than 7m).

There are about 500,000 state school pupils sitting A levels each year and 3% managed 3 A grades in 2007. So 15000 triple A state school students. Stats are difficult for fee-payers but even if 60,000 are sitting A levels and 20% get three As there are still less in total than from the state sector.

So the first question is - why would Oxbridge refuse to take state school AAA students in favour of many obviously less able fee-educated?

How can Oxbridge claim its premier status and extra funding when it obviously is not minded to attract the absolutely best students?

The bottom line is that the tax-payer is subsidising the continuing privilege of the wealthy. Oxbridge have continually hardballed the government and threatened to go entirely private if made to increase state educated ratios. Time to call their bluff.

More damning stuff -


The problem, Passing Leftie, is that you are guessing the figures for fee paying schools and probably wildly underestimating the number of AAA grade students they produce.

Top fee paying schools achieve around 85% A grades at A level. Even if the grades were distributed randomly amongst the population (unlikely), over 50% of those taking 3 A-levels would have AAA grades. So the 60,000 fee payers could well produce 30,000 or more AAA students. The question then becomes, why are Oxbridge colleges refusing to take fee educated AAA students in favour of many obviously less able state school? Possibly because, contrary to your assertions, Oxbridge IS minded to attract absolutely the best students.

Even if there is a problem (unproven), part of it is likely to be that many state schools discourage their students from applying to Oxbridge in the mistaken belief that they won't get in.

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