Special Report on Courses: A more comprehensive appeal: Oxbridge wants more state-school students and less mystique, reports Felicity Taylor

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OXFORD and Cambridge try to encourage state school applicants, but independent schools still win a high proportion of places. Does this matter? If independent schools provide the best candidates, why should the universities worry?

The answer is that they should. The universities, however wellendowed, need public money to survive, and that is hard to justify if they are seen as finishing schools for the fortunate few. And independent schools, though skilled at making the best of individual talents, have no monopoly of real ability.

In the Eighties the popular image of Oxbridge was tarred, however unfairly, with the yuppie brush. That air of thoughtless privilege was alien to most comprehensive school sixth-formers and, significantly, to their teachers. After all, it is often the teacher's views that influence pupil choice.

Both universities are working hard to banish such misconceptions. Both have a Target Schools scheme run by the students' unions. During the vacation undergraduates visit schools near their homes which have never sent anyone to Oxbridge. It is a simple idea, but Dr Colin Crouch, vice-chair of the Oxford admissions committee, sees this as one of the most positive ways of doing away with the Oxbridge mystique.

Oxford has an Access Scheme that helps teachers through the application process and publishes a Black Prospectus. The Black Caucus in Cambridge works with college tutors to visit schools with high ethnic minority populations. Cambridge is also a founder member of HiPACT, a national organisation from industry, higher education and schools to encourage more students into higher education. So the good will is there.

What else puts students off? Ask sixth-formers how hard it is to get into Oxbridge. They will probably say that there are 10 or more applicants for every place. In reality about one in three of those who apply are accepted, compared with about one in two for all UK universities. The big difference is in the proportion of candidates from independent schools. At Oxford, independent schools make 37 per cent of the applications and get 46 per cent of the places. At Cambridge the proportions are 35 per cent and 44 per cent. This reinforces the view that Oxbridge is full of ex-public school pupils. Yet what the statistics really show is that more than half of Oxbridge undergraduates do not come from the independent sector.

The admissions procedure has a bad reputation with outsiders. The university prospectuses do their best to explain the essential points about college groupings and preferred methods of entry, but the head of sixth form in an inner-city comprehensive has no time for such niceties. Dr Crouch maintains, however, that the value of insider knowledge about college and tutor preferences is a myth.

More than half the Oxford candidates still take the entrance examination, rather than opt for conditional or post A-level offers. Independent schools have a big advantage here, and it is a disincentive for schools who cannot afford the extra tuition. Interestingly enough, when it comes to the final degree exams, there is no significant difference in performance between those who succeeded in the entrance exam and those were accepted through A-level offers.

Since Cambridge abolished its entrance exam, state school applications and acceptances now just outnumber those from the independent sector. It is, of course, inevitable that encouraging a wider spread of applicants leads to more competition and more people being disappointed.

Even when A-levels are used as the measure of ability, independent schools have the edge. The exceptional student from an inner-city comprehensive will always stand out. It is when selection is among the equally bright that the independents score, because of the depth of their academic experience and common cultural heritage. One tutor recommends general studies A-level to compensate for this. Cambridge still asks for parents' occupation as a form of positive discrimination. Nevertheless, it is very demoralising for an under-privileged school to pin hopes on one of its star pupils only to find they were just not good enough. It certainly puts the school off trying again.

Dr Crouch insists that the system is being improved to make it more state school friendly. His advice is to go for the conditional offer; it is not a second-class mode of entry. Come along to an open day to see what an Oxbridge college is really like.

So don't be put off by the mystique; the universities find it just as inhibiting as the schools. Above all, don't take it too hard if you don't get in. There are three good candidates for every place, and they cannot all be lucky.

Felicity Taylor is director of the Institute of School and College Governors.

Where to find out more

Oxford Colleges Admissions Office, Wellington Square, Oxford OX1 2JD (0865 270207). Cambridge Intercollegiate Applications Office, Kellet Lodge, Tennis Court Road, Cambridge CB2 IQJ (0223 333308).