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Oxford targets Britain's top private schools

More than a fifth of Oxford University's "outreach" events, designed to encourage applicants from non-traditional backgrounds, were put on for pupils at independent schools over the past two years.

Some of the country's most elite schools, including Eton, St Paul's, Winchester and Rugby, feature on a list of access events obtained under Freedom of Information legislation by The Independent. While the university staged 945 events at community schools, plus hundreds more at grammar and other kinds of state-sector schools, it also targeted private schools on 770 occasions – 21 per cent of the total.

The statistics also reveal that most of the state schools that Oxford contacts have a lower than average number of pupils on free school meals, a common measure of deprivation. Three-fifths of the schools have less than 10 per cent of pupils on free school meals. The national average is 13.4 per cent.

The private school to benefit most from Oxford's attention was Manchester Grammar School, with fees of £9,000 a year. The university organised 18 events there, including visits from different colleges and an economics presentation.

Universities are facing increased pressure to broaden access and increase the provision of bursaries to students from underprivileged backgrounds. The Government is likely to demand more such initiatives if tuition fees rise to £9,000 a year.

David Willetts, minister for Universities, said last week that any tuition fee agreement would "be expected to include activities such as outreach initiatives to attract more pupils to apply from disadvantaged backgrounds".

On the "widening access" page of Oxford's website, the university states that "particular focus is given to seeking out more applications from highly able students from groups who do not typically apply to Oxford. New data is enabling us to refocus our widening access programmes for students from state schools and colleges with low rates of applications to the university."

Yet the private schools Oxford is targeting already send a large proportion of their students to the university.

The university held five outreach events at Westminster School, whose alumni include Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, even though pupils from the school made up 2 per cent of Oxford's entire undergraduate intake last year. Oxford's classics faculty organised 154 outreach activities with independent schools, but just 83 with those in the maintained sector.

Politicians have repeatedly called on the university to widen its admissions. Gordon Brown criticised Oxford in 2000 when state school pupil Laura Spence failed to get a place at Oxford, despite four top A-level grades.

Overall, 53 per cent of Oxford places were awarded to state school students last year. But while pupils from independent schools comprised 39 per cent of applicants, they made up 46 per cent of acceptances.

Simon Wood, who helps organise the student-run "Target Schools" access initiative, said: "With limited resources, it seems nonsensical to target schools like Eton, who already dominate Oxford applications."

A spokesman for Oxford University said: "The university works hard to ensure that all those with the potential to succeed at Oxford apply – regardless of background."

How oxford 'reaches out'

The top 10 private schools targeted by Oxford, and their fees

* Manchester Grammar School, 18 events (£9,000 per year)

* Headington School, 15 events (£24,945)

* University College School, London, 13 events (£15,465)

* King's High School, Warwick, 12 events (£9,159)

* Marlborough College, 12 events (£29,310)

* Oxford High School for Girls, 11 events (£9,720)

* St Paul's, 11 events (£25,773)

* Rugby, 10 events (£28,000)

* Eton, 9 events (£29,862)

* Cheltenham Ladies' College, 8 events (£27,735)