Ellie Levenson: The way to end Oxbridge elitism

There are schools where applying to them is never even discussed
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The Independent Online

A session at the weekend's Fabian Society Conference called "One idea to make Britain fairer" was a Dragon's Den-style event in which five policy suggestions were championed by delegates, commented on by a panel and voted on by an audience of members of the Labour-affiliated think tank.

Much to the distress of the session's chair, higher education minister David Lammy, one of the joint winners was a suggestion for a cap on the number of places at Oxford and Cambridge given to privately-educated students. This was advocated by Sarah Vero, a parliamentary researcher.

Vero, a graduate of the University of East Anglia, was herself privately educated until the penultimate year of primary school, and was then in the state system until the age of 18. She argued that given that 7% of children attend private schools, a reasonable cap would be 14%. Pupils from private schools would still have double the chance of state-educated pupils of gaining entrance to these elite institutions.

This would have the knock-on effect of ensuring that the huge opportunities that students at Oxbridge get are distributed more equally throughout society, and that confidence and swagger, currently as much Oxbridge entrance criteria as exam results, would be less important than academic achievement and potential.

In fact I'd go further than Vero and introduce a system where two Oxbridge places were allocated to every school in the country. Imagine that – just two students from Eton and as many as two students from my East London comprehensive going up to Oxford or Cambridge each year. Not only would this ensure that pupils from all communities and backgrounds had equal chances of going to Oxbridge, but it would also start to equal out aspirations. Because yes, while both the two universities and the individual colleges have outreach programmes to try to reach out to state-educated students, there are whole schools and entire communities where applying to an elite university is neither discussed nor encouraged.

This simple measure would have more impact than any of the suggestions in last week' social mobility White Paper or the likely recommendations of Alan Milburn's review of barriers to working-class entry to the professions. For not only would it raise aspirations of pupils in all schools, but it would ensure that more privately-educated high achievers went to a wider spread of universities, raising the bar across higher education generally. What's more, parents who were previously inclined to buy their children's education in the hope of giving them an extra step-up in life might instead send their children to state schools, ensuring they were truly comprehensive and benefited from having more well-off parents involved with the school.

Of course it's not just in schools that I would like to see Vero's suggestion implemented.

If privately-educated people were no more likely than state-educated people to get the top jobs, then we'd see far fewer pupils go to private schools.

And if Vero's suggestion gained widespread support, the Cabinet, as with everything, ought to lead by example. Seven current Cabinet members were privately educated: Alistair Darling, Ed Balls, Jack Straw, Geoff Hoon, Harriet Harman, James Purnell and Shaun Woodward. That's over 30 per cent. Some of them, I'm afraid, will have to go.