Improving opportunity and achievement in education

Tougher Minds Head of Education Andrew Foster discusses his ideas about improving access to elite Universities.

The news that Oxford and Cambridge colleges are failing to meet their own target for the admittance of state school pupils is a disappointment but not a surprise. The same could be said of the standard of the analysis in response.

Oxbridge tends to catch the attention of commentators who otherwise pay little attention to education and it soon becomes apparent that their insight on the topic is similar to that of the man down the pub who thinks that what the England football team really need is someone who can “bring some passion”. The suggestion is that the problem should be addressed by Oxbridge “just taking more state school pupils”. What could be simpler?

Always beware the word “just” when connected to proposed actions in education. It rarely leads to much that is good.

When we talk about Oxbridge, we are not just considering two universities but just shy of seventy colleges, each of which offer dozens of courses. What is imagined to be one monolithic entry procedure is actually around two thousand idiosyncratic processes, each with a relatively small number of applicants, and largely conducted in isolation from each other. Applying hard-and-fast quotas may be part of the solution but they are likely to be problematic in themselves.

Further, state/private is not a very accurate means of differentiating those that are privileged from those that are not. Scholarships at private schools and house prices around successful state schools are significant confounds. Children qualifying for free school meals and now the Pupil Premium would be a better measure, are even more underrepresented at Oxbridge than the generic state school pupil and yet are less often discussed.

I am passionate about children from disadvantaged backgrounds going further in educations at all levels and the cache Oxbridge has, even with those otherwise disengaged from and sceptical of the benefits of academic education, means it demands particular consideration. But while we might want the problem of access solved, and solved yesterday, we should draw our attention back to the fact that longstanding problems rarely have fast and easy means of address.

If we are serious about changing the life chances of young people from tough backgrounds then we need to be prepared to do hard work to change the experience of pupils throughout their schooling, not just at one particular pinch point. This week I have been conducting one-on-one discussions with year 7 pupils at one of the state schools Tougher Minds are working with. Throughout I was struck at how a number of these pupils could go on to excel in an Oxbridge interview. The challenge is to make sure that the intervening years are ones in which they receive preparation for what comes after school, wherever that may be.


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