State schools using private tutors to help pupils secure Oxbridge places

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The Independent Online

More than 100 state schools are paying a private company to coach their brightest pupils on how to get places at Oxford or Cambridge, The Independent can disclose.

The figures emerge as a new report out this week is expected to show there are still “stark inequalities” in the selection of successful candidates for the two universities.

The report, from the Sutton Trust, is expected to show only “a tiny proportion” of schools being successful in getting their pupils places and almnost all of them are either selective state grammar schools or from the independent secrtor.

However, Oxbridge Applications, which offers coaching on interview techniques and test preparation for up to £1,500, says the number of candidates approaching it for help has doubled in the past three years.

“”We’re now working with about 5,000 candidates over the year,”said a spokeswoman.

Two-thirds of them are from state schools as are 55 per cent of the 200 schools that have also enlisted their services.

Competition to get into Oxford and Cambridge has never been higher as more youngsters obtain three A grade passes at A-level with the result each university is turning away around 8,000 applicants a year.

Last year, in Cambridge’s case, most would have been expected to get two A grades and A” pass at A-level as it became the first university in the country to seek at least one A* grade pass from every candidate.

Oxbridge Applications said the growth in interest from state schools could be as a result of some contemplating encouraging their brightest pupils to try for an Oxford or Cambridge place for the first time.

In the past some teachers from state schools have been criticised for failing to push their brightest pupils into making applications to Oxford or Cambridge claiming the universities are too elitist and that pupils from disadvantaged homes would find it difficult to fit in.

Today's figures appear to show more and more state school teachers are now coming to the opposite point of view. Oxbridge Applications said they did not know whether the schools were using their own money for the training or asking the parents to pay. However, it is believed some may be using money from the former "Aim Higher" programme - set up to encourage more disadvantaged youngsters to apply for university places but now axed by the coalition government as part of the public spending cuts.

“It may be a school has just one candidate that they feel should apply and they may not have the experience of handling Oxbridge applications in the past,” said the Oxbridfge Applications spokeswoman.

Another reason for the rise could be that universities no longer turn their noses up at candidates who have sought such help.

“What has become more acceptable is seeking help with your application,” she added.

“We have seen a complete change since we first set up in 199 and it is now less of a taboo,.”

The company is expecting the numbers seeking advice to soar this week after open days at both Oxford and Cambridge between July 6 and 8.

It added that it does offer free advice to youngsters on free school meals who are entitled to education maintenance allowances to help them stay on into the sixth-form.

However, Lee Elliott Major, research and development director at the Sutton Trust – which has campaigned to gain fair access to top universities for disadvantaged students, said: “Our worry is such support will only be for privileged schools and pupils.

“We want to ensure that everyone gets the opportunity to go who could benefit from it from whatever background.”

He said his charity would be publishing a report later this week where “the Oxbridge figures will again show the extremely stark inequalities in intake with a tiny proportion of schools sending candidates”.

The trust is involved in talks with Oxford to set up “prep days” which would in some way mimic what Oxbridge applications provide but ensure such help is available to youngsters from the disadvantaged communities as well.

The trust already operates “summer schools” at both Oxford and Cambridge to give state school pupils a taste of life at the UK’s top universities.