'Elite' state schools contribute to Oxbridge north-south admissions bias, study reveals

'Expanding the grammar school system will not redress the inequality in access to Oxbridge,' a researcher said

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The Independent Online

A subset of ‘elite’ state schools are contributing to north-south Oxbridge bias, according to a new geographical study.

Schools in the south-east region send nearly 50 per cent more students to Oxford and Cambridge colleges than the national average, with some schools in London sending as many as one in three of their pupils to one or the other.

It has long been known that students from schools in London and the south-east are disproportionately overrepresented at the top universities, but research undertaken by King’s College London suggests a growing number of selective sixth forms have become "feeder schools" for Oxbridge colleges.

Sol Gamsu a researcher from Kings College London who led the study, said one grammar school in Barnett sent 16 per cent of its pupils to Oxbridge in one year.

“There are a group of elite state schools, which over the past 20 years have sort of pulled away from the rest of the state sector,” he said. “It’s not exclusive to London or the south, but it is certainly more polarised in the capital.”

Using Department for Education data for the 2013-2014 academic year, the long-term research project highlights the extent to which access to the top two universities is limited in poorer areas of the country.

“Some of these state schools do outperform many independents but there is plenty of research showing that they also tend to have more affluent intakes than other local state schools,” said Mr Gamsu.

A key reason these state schools do so well in terms of Oxbridge candidates is that they are selective, he added, either at age 11 upon entry for grammar schools or at 16 on entry to sixth form for the comprehensive schools. 

“They are effectively also creating a more polarised state system,” he said, adding that government plans to allow for more grammar schools will only contribute further to this bias.

“In many ways, the rise of these ‘super-state’ grammar schools represents the complete undoing of comprehensive school reform, as the attempt to produce a more equal school system has been deliberately dismantled and highly competitive elite state schools have been allowed to rise.”

The study finds that London’s grammars receive more applicants per place than similar grammar schools in Birmingham or Manchester.

This ‘hyper-selectivity’ for places brings high results, with some grammars insisting on an A* at GCSE in the subject to be studied at A-level to continue on in the sixth form.

What we’re seeing is a rise in inequality between schools at the top-end with a concentration of elite schools in the South-East of England. Much of the attention has been on the background of the students that Oxbridge recruits, but the way Oxbridge recruits remains the same: they still recruit large numbers from a small group of elite feeder schools. This process effectively fosters unequal relationships between schools, resulting in unequal access to England’s top universities.”

Analysis of the data, which is to be presented to the Royal Geographical Society later this month, found that state schools in the South east send an average of 1.43 times more students than the national average to Oxford and Cambridge.

Private schools in regions including Yorkshire and Humber, the East Midlands and the North East sent half as many as the national average, however, suggesting that high performing pupils in the south still stood a better chance of being offered top university places.

“There is also considerable cost involved in accessing these schools,” he said, “either through paying for tutors to pass the 11+ exams or through the cost of buying a house within the catchment areas for good comprehensive schools”.

Earlier this month it was announced that around 20 new grammar schools were to be considered in “typical working-class areas”, following hints that Prime Minister Theresa May is in favour of the more selective schools being reintroduced in England.

Mr Gamsu said: “This study suggests that expanding the grammar school system will not redress the inequality in access to Oxbridge. Not only are elite state schools contributing to inequality in access in their local areas, they show a clear geographical bias towards London and the South-East, the causes of which will not be addressed if the grammar system is expanded.”

The top 20 state schools for Oxbridge applicants

Institution Local authority Percentage of Oxbridge candidates  
Queen Elizabeth's School, Barnet Barnet 16%  
King Edward VI Camp Hill School for Boys Birmingham 15%  
Colchester Royal Grammar School Essex 14%  
The Judd School Kent 14%  
The Henrietta Barnett School Barnet 14%  
Colyton Grammar School Devon 13%  
St Olave's and St Saviour's Grammar School Bromley 12%  
Kendrick School Reading 12%  
The Latymer School Enfield 11%  
Pate's Grammar School Gloucestershire 11%  
Dr Challoner's Grammar School Buckinghamshire 11%  
Stratford-Upon-Avon Grammar School for Girls Warwickshire 11%  
Wolverhampton Girls' High School Wolverhampton 11%  
Lancaster Royal Grammar School Lancashire 10%  
Reading School Reading 10%  
Chelmsford County High School for Girls Essex 10%  
Tiffin School Kingston upon Thames 9%  
Parmiter's School Hertfordshire 9%  
Sutton Grammar School Sutton 9%  
Colchester County High School for Girls Essex 9%  

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