Driving through the main gate at the Royal Grammar School, High Wycombe, tall trees part to reveal a commanding red- brick building in the Queen Anne style. With this kind of architecture, it's no wonder that this Buckinghamshire boys' school sends so many of its pupils to leading universities.
But the headmaster Roy Page is having none of it. "I can take you to bits of the school that are not grand," he says. "Don't forget you're sitting in the headmaster's study. And I've just decorated it."
Still, outside and in, the state selective Royal Grammar School has the appearance and atmosphere of an independent school. This was confirmed by the findings of the recent Sutton Trust Report. The Royal Grammar School appeared 10th in the table for getting students into Oxford and Cambridge, among a clutch of independent big-hitters. The state school found itself just four places shy of £26,000-a-year Eton, having apparently sent a whopping 27.1 per cent of its leavers to the hallowed quads and courts in the last five years.
A quick call to a rival local school, however, revealed that this was indeed a whopper. The Sutton Trust had got its numbers wrong – perhaps confused by the plethora of "Royal Grammar Schools" in Britain (seven, at the last count).
The actual percentage of RGS students admitted to Oxford and Cambridge over five years was not 27.1, but 11.7 per cent, bringing RGS in at a still-impressive 73rd, not far behind Fettes, the Eton of the north. The revised figures are to be published in a full report later this month.
But Page isn't particularly bothered by all these tables. He knows that he's at the helm of a top-performing state school, and one with a history of feeding bright students to Oxbridge. The most recent edition of The Good Schools Guide called it "a school to move house for".
"We're very lucky here," says Page. "The boys are very bright. They work very hard. They want to achieve. They're proud of the tradition of the school, and they want to be a part of that tradition. And if I tell you that the average boy last summer achieved three grade As..."
He could go on. Clearly this isn't your average state school. And yet, as Page claims, nor is it a "super-selective" state school: all selection is done in the Buckinghamshire LEA way. Pupils must score 121 in the 11-plus; though, to study a subject at A-level, most are expected to achieve an A grade at GCSE.
It is thus unsurprising that every boy at the Royal Grammar School – including old boys Ian Dury and Jimmy Carr – finds his way into higher education. About 60 or 70 apply to Oxbridge each year: a third of these, sometimes half, get in.
"In this school, much of it is about expectation, and the boys will already have their sights on wanting to go to Oxford and Cambridge," says Page.
It is this culture of expectation and competition, that is the driving force, and the head boy, Alexander Americanos, is an expression of that culture. "Around the school, it seems quite a common thing that people go for Oxbridge," he says. "You don't get the 'Oh, geek!' response. There is a level of respect towards it – as you would hope."
As well as being head boy and studying for A-levels in chemistry, biology, Latin and music, Americanos plays rugby for the Second XV, plays trumpet for the school band, sings in the choir, and has a jazz band with boys in his year. He is "busy", he says, but it's all part of the Royal Grammar School experience, which prizes the world beyond the classroom.
Americanos is applying to do biological sciences at New College, Oxford. He and his fellow Oxbridge applicants will be prepared by Phil Bastow, a teacher and a graduate of St John's College, Oxford, who deals exclusively with Oxbridge applications.
Candidates from the Royal Grammar School link up with nearby Wycombe Abbey – fourth in the Sutton Trust table – for academic discussions, debating competitions and mock interviews with the staff. This is on top of the numerous interviews within RGS itself, with heads of subject and the headmaster.
I wonder how it feels for Americanos to know that he has a one-in-two- or three-dozen chance of getting in to Oxbridge. "It makes you more determined," he says. "You want to be the person getting the place over some of the other people."
But on top of this rampant competitiveness, there is also maturity and respect in the interaction between the head teacher and pupils. Page prides himself on his approachability. Older boys acknowledge him freely as we wander around the grounds. Younger boys scuttle up, eager to please. All this contact means that students overcome any insecurity about dealing with "grown-up" academics: sound preparation for Oxbridge interviews.
"When you're at school you're shy, and you want to be cool, and not to be seen as the pushy one," says Page. "Our young men are very similar. I think some of them are a little embarrassed about actually saying, 'I think I'd like to have a go at Oxbridge', because there's still that special business about applying to those two universities. So it's about gradually introducing them to the idea."
But what Page calls "that special business" is exactly what puts many potential Oxbridge applicants off. The kernel of the Sutton Trust report was that the old colleges are being fed by an old-boy network: an élite group of 100 schools, four-fifths of which are independent. The report was followed by a flurry of debate on why this was.
"When understanding the potential of a student from a comprehensive school in unfamiliar surroundings, in 20 minutes, it's not that easy to make judgements," says John Guy, principal of the Sixth Form College, Farnborough. "You have to set that against the potential of someone who feels like he's just chatting to his tutor at Winchester."
While not going so far as to suggest that dons would select a student on the grounds that they had heard of their school, Guy said that the Oxbridge admissions procedure was "a very complicated process that is done relatively quickly and sometimes inaccurately. In that situation, you'd tend to go for the safe bet." In other words, a school with a good academic reputation.
A number of sixth-form colleges have a good record of getting students into Oxford and Cambridge. Hills Road in Cambridge got 321 in, compared with the Royal Grammar School's 102 over the same five-year period – showing that other state institutions can produce the goods. But some say that the methodology of the Sutton Trust report works against schools and colleges that take a wide range of students, those who do vocation training as well as academic qualifications, rather than creaming off the élite after GCSE.
"It's a result of the nature of these schools," says Geoff Parks, director of admissions at Cambridge University. "They're highly selective. For many of them, Oxbridge entrance is their raison d'être." A contrast with some comprehensives, who regard Oxbridge warily, imagining that their charges wouldn't fit into these venerable institutions.
While the state sector can be seen as unduly negative about Oxford and Cambridge, independent schools are almost bumptious in their enthusiasm. "You've only got to look at Oxbridge and the Ivy League to see that, if you collect like-minded intelligent pupils in the same environment, it creates an almost nuclear fusion," says Dr Martin Stephen, the high master of St Paul's School, in London, where this critical-mass effect propelled the school to fifth place in the Sutton Trust table.
"The Royal Grammar School, High Wycombe, is simply an independent school under a maintained heading," he adds. "It is a special-needs school because it treats its bright students as having special needs. It's as simple as that."
How to get your pupils into Oxford and Cambridge
"It's important to encourage them to apply. At GCSE, it will be apparent that certain people are more able: select the students who have that potential. Take them to open days – we take a coachload.
"On the academic side, it's about encouraging the candidates to read beyond their chosen subject. Set them further reading and make sure that they've gone beyond the curriculum.
"Wycombe Abbey school organises an academic forum at which students meet and debate with us, and it is very useful for both schools. Schools that have better facilities should be encouraged to link up and share them with other local schools.
"Familiarise the candidates with the idea of what to expect at interview. Make sure that they get used to the idea of having an interview with someone they've never met before. But don't over-coach: if someone has been overly prepared for interview, the Oxbridge tutors can see through that.
"Extracurricular activities are important. If the student can perform well academically, while engaging in sport, music, chess or debating, it suggests that they have good organisational skills. People who gain admission to Oxbridge get involved in a lot of other things besides academic work."
The writer is in charge of Oxbridge applications at the Royal Grammar School, High WycombeReuse content