There has been much gnashing of teeth recently at private schools. Many seem convinced that the top universities - and particularly Oxbridge - are discriminating against them, in favour of state school candidates. It's an interesting supposition, and one which is worrying many parents. Here John O'Leary, author of the Good University Guide, looks not at the emotions, but the evidence...
"There is a widespread assumption in independent schools that the odds are now stacked against them at many colleges in Oxford and Cambridge – just as many in state schools have always believed the opposite.
Such suspicions should be easy to allay since both universities publish their admissions statistics in great detail. The trouble is that the numbers are so small that a few decisions this way or that can produce seemingly dramatic swings.
In 2008, for example, the proportion of state-educated entrants to Oxford leapt by more than 2 per cent. Was this the dons finally succumbing to pressure to discriminate against privileged schools? No, it was normal service being resumed after a decline in state school enrolments the previous year. The switch involved a total of 50 out of more than 10,000 applicants.
Discerning patterns in the selection policies of individual colleges is, thus, even more uncertain – especially when enrolments are affected by the number of places each can offer in different subjects. Independent schools produce nearly three times as many applicants as the state sector for Oxford classics degrees, whereas three-quarters of applications for law come from the state sector.
That said, there are colleges that year after year take significantly more than average from the state or independent sectors. At Oxford, Brasenose has taken less than 40 per cent of its entrants from maintained schools or colleges over the past three years, while St John’s has taken almost 65 per cent, when the average has been 54 per cent.
Often, such differences become self-fulfilling prophecies, as schools draw their own conclusions and pass them on to candidates. The proportion of state-educated applicants at St John’s is consistently among the highest of all the Oxford colleges, while Brasenose has among the lowest.
The same is true, not surprisingly, at Cambridge, where more than 80 per cent of last year’s applications and acceptances at Lucy Cavendish were from the state sector, but that applied to barely half of the applications and only 42 per cent of the acceptances at Peterhouse. Even Clare, one of the colleges that pioneered a system giving extra attention to applicants from low-performing schools, awarded a minority of places to state-educated candidates in 2008, although it took a much higher proportion the previous year.
Because the numbers applying to each college are so small, it is dangerous to base any assumptions on a single year. Oxford publishes three-year averages, as well as the most recent figures, and statistics from previous years are not hard to find on either university’s website.
Even plumping for a college with a record of high admissions from the state or independent sector is a risky strategy – your carefully chosen college may be trying to redress that balance. And, while colleges do have a distinctive character, the dons who carry out the interviews are all different. Every college recruits from both sectors, so any tutor will advise you to try the one that attracts you.
One trend that might be worth noting, however, is when the proportion of candidates admitted from one sector or the other is out of line with a college’s applications. Again, there are complications when a college takes large numbers from the ‘pool’ of applicants passed on by their first choices. But over the last three years at Oxford, for example, a clear majority of applicants to St Edmund Hall have been from independent schools, but more than half of the places have gone to state-educated students. At New College, the gap is narrower but the trend has been in the opposite direction.
Read School Gate: