Meritocracy on an Uneven Playing Field

A couple of weeks ago, I dispersed some thoughts on David Turner’s new book The Old Boys, on the history of English public schools. I did not consider the elitism that has dogged these schools since their inception in that post; I have reserved this matter for a separate post where it can be done justice. My basic position is not a radical or even unusual one: it is easier for publicly-educated pupils to gain access to top universities, and measures need to be implemented in order to remove as much of this unfair advantage as possible. I shall briefly discuss one idea that I recently encountered in a Varsity article, as well as examining this issue from the ‘public school’ side of the table.

Where should the balance lie?

In my view, a prerequisite to attempting to solve any problem is a deep understanding of the nature, extent and attendant circumstances thereof. For the 2014-15 academic year, Turner’s book claims that both the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge had around 63 state-educated students per 100. A representative of the latter supposedly said that it would be almost impossible to increase this figure without compromising the academic quality of the students admitted. The independent sector, however, educates only 6.5% of school-age pupils in the UK. This disparity raises some key issues. Firstly, what is the ‘right’ ratio of state- to independently-educated pupils in top universities? Secondly, how must access schemes and measures operate in light of the high academic standards at some independent schools?

I must admit at the outset that I don’t know what the ‘right’ balance between state- and independently-educated pupils at top universities is, or even whether such a figure exists. Attempting to define this first issue is made more difficult by its interplay with the second. The top universities in the UK are looking for the brightest students from across the country, irrespective of their educational background. These students, however, aren’t equally dispersed across all schools. Many independent schools have competitive exams to determine entry, which means that independent schools with competitive entry are likely to have higher proportions of the brightest students at age 11 (or age 16, in the case of independent Sixth Forms). If top universities are looking for the brightest students, then it seems an almost logical conclusion that a greater proportion than otherwise expected will come from outside the state sector. I do not think we can afford to be satisfied with this logical end-point. Such a course entails taking a risk that some of the brightest students in the state sector ‘slip through the net’ despite being prime candidates for entry to top universities.

What are the solutions?

A recent article in Varsity puts forward the suggestion of lower entry requirements for the most disadvantaged students. This is something with which I’m entirely sympathetic: there is enough of a gulf between the standard of teaching in the very top independent schools and some state schools that it is considerably easier for an independently-educated pupil to gain a certain grade at A-Level than for some state-educated pupils. Setting the same entry requirement for both pupils therefore doesn’t seem entirely fair, as the independently-educated pupil appears to have a higher chance of making their grades on account of the system through which they have come. This phenomenon makes me very reluctant to accept the University of Cambridge’s justification for being satisfied with 63 state-educated pupils per 100 admitted: that this matches the proportion of pupils who achieve the necessary entry requirements across the country.

As the aforementioned article suggests, this solution not only impacts those who already have offers but also those who are considering applying to top universities. To an extent, it will lift the psychological barrier imposed by the prospect of particularly high entry requirements, which as suggested above, can be more difficult to achieve in some state schools due to possible differences in preparation for public exams. It is important to view this suggestion (it unfortunately remains only this for the time being) in the context of other Cambridge access schemes. Both the CUSU Shadowing Scheme and the schools initiatives run by individual colleges are responsible for making Cambridge a much more open environment than the media might otherwise suggest at times; repeated references to Eton and Oxbridge-educated politicians create an unfortunate impression that the country’s top universities are for the privileged rather than for the highly intelligent.

Further changes to the admissions process to Cambridge will be afoot as a result of this year’s changes to A-Level exams. Switching to a two-year, linear approach in favour of the previous modular format has the benefit of reducing some of the emphasis on exam grades. This reduces part of the skew created by differing standards in teaching, but the proposed admissions tests bring a new (or old) problem: students at independent schools will have the advantage of a greater number of older peers who have gone through the admissions process and can therefore pass on their expertise. This harks back to the days before A-Levels when a large part of the role of public schools was to prepare boys for Oxbridge education. That was a time when access to higher education was far more restricted than it is today; Oxbridge colleges were ‘finishing schools’ for public schools, some of which were no more than feeders for these elite institutions.

The other side of the table

With that established, the next question is the extent to which entry requirements ought to be relaxed. I don’t think there is a paradigm that can be imposed to decide this. The differing abilities of offer-holders and the differing standards within the state sector mean that a wide range of circumstances must be taken into account in order to decide what the most appropriate entry requirements for particular offer-holders. It is key that the new intake of freshers represents the brightest students that the UK has to offer. The implement of choice should be a delicate craft knife rather than a chainsaw. For that reason, I wouldn’t support a system in which offer-holders from state schools have a lower set of entry requirements across the board than those from independent schools; the very meritocracy which I believe is a great strength of this country would be abandoned in pursuit of it. Some state schools achieve more highly than schools from the independent sector, and there are a number of pupils in the state sector who are considerably brighter than some of their independent school counterparts; the challenge with this set lies in ensuring they receive sufficient encouragement to make an application. It must be recognised, however, that given the current lack of enthusiasm for widening access, the notion of discrimination against independent schools in the Oxbridge admissions processes is almost entirely hypothetical. England’s chances of winning Euro 2016 are quite possibly greater.

It’s been almost a year to the day since I emerged from the ‘public school bubble’. In that time, it has become clear that despite the many qualities of independent schools, something must be done to address the elitism in admissions to top universities and the imbalance created by differing standards of teaching.



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