Paul Vallely: Disdain for learning is a costly flaw

While a handful of schools take the lion's share of Oxbridge places, lack of motivation and money exclude many

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This is not the story of one boy, but of many boys and girls. But let's begin with one. A seven-year-old is sitting at the dining table copying from an exercise book on to a sheet of paper. It is an essay he has written on the Great Fire of London. His teacher told him that it was good work and has asked him to read it out to the class the next day.

"If there are any words that are difficult to read aloud you can change them," she has told him. But he is not just changing the odd word. He is rewriting the piece entirely. "I can't use a word like that, or that, or that," he says, pointing, "because the other boys will laugh at me."

Next he cuts out a line he has imagined about what the Dean of St Paul's said to the King after the conflagration. "They'll laugh if I mention the Dean of St Paul's," he explains. The boy is dumbing down his work for fear of the disapproval of his peers.

"Learning is for losers, Dad," he says to his father, though he knows it's not true.

A mere five British schools take a huge number of the places at Oxford and Cambridge universities, a report by the Sutton Trust said the other day. Four independent schools – Eton, Westminster, St Paul's Boys and St Paul's Girls – and one state school sent 946 pupils to Oxford and Cambridge between 2007 and 2009. That was more than the 2,000 schools at the bottom of the trust's list combined. Together these sent only 927 to the two elite universities.

But we are not talking solely about a contrast between the top and bottom of the Sutton table, which covered 750,000 students and 2,343 secondary schools. What it reveals, when you look lower down the table, is that an elite of only 5 per cent of schools account for almost a third of Oxbridge admissions. And if you look beyond these ancient institutions you find the same imbalance extends to all Britain's top 30 universities.

Some of the reasons for this are self-evident. Selective schools generally get better results than comprehensives which, by definition, contain a wider range of abilities. Private schools, on average, do better because they pay more for better teachers and pupils are taught in smaller classes. Combine fee-paying and selection and you get the situation where almost half of the girls who got to university from St Paul's School in London went to Oxbridge.

The difference turns on different A-level results. But there are other interesting factors producing what the Sutton Trust's chairman, Sir Peter Lampl, calls these "stark inequalities". Two grammar schools with almost identical A-level results are highlighted in the report; one got 65 per cent of its pupils into the top 30, the other only 28 per cent. At the other end of the scale, two comprehensives with equally low scores displayed an even bigger disparity; one got 70 per cent of its 18-year-olds to apply for higher education, the other only 33 per cent.

Why such huge gaps? The quality and vision of the teachers, the support of parents and the peer-pressure culture generated, for good or ill, by pupils are crucial. It is no coincidence that the one state school in the five schools with the top results is Hills Road Sixth Form College in Cambridge. It sent 204 pupils to Oxbridge over those three years, a figure surpassed only by Westminster (235) and Eton (211), the almae matres of Nick Clegg and David Cameron respectively. It's not hard to see why. The place has loads of kids whose parents are Cambridge dons, for whom cleverness is both nature and nurture.

Such parents take a dim view of suggestions that their offspring might like to do A-level travel and tourism because it's easier to get a good grade. They will know, as the teachers in some comps appear not to, that universities such as Cambridge have issued a list of subjects that students should avoid. They will also know which colleges are best for which subjects. Their kids may even meet admissions tutors over Sunday lunch.

Yet there is something more intangible too. Schools like that create a culture in which peer pressure is towards aspiration and achievement. They are places which put on extension classes at lunchtime, to stretch students, or which have after-school, co-curricular clubs to enrich their pupils' experience. They are staffed with teachers who would be horrified by the idea that some secondary school teachers actively discourage students from wider reading because it might introduce them to material which is not in the syllabus – and which could cost marks from a hidebound examiner.

Some good comprehensives do all that. The Sutton report praises Cockermouth School in Cumbria, a genuine all-ability school serving its local community. It offers a range of options to its ability ranges, but over the years it has lifted their aspirations by telling pupils where their predecessors went to college. It has excellent outreach arrangements with both local universities and Oxbridge. As a result, more than 90 per cent of its kids go to one of the top 30 universities or Oxbridge.

The present system needs changes to ensure fairer access. Independent schools must give more bursaries to poorer kids as a condition of keeping their charitable status. So must universities if they are to be allowed to charge top tuition fees. Attention needs to be given to geographical bias; Oxbridge places are three times more likely to go to students from London and the South-east as from the North. In Reading, 9 per cent of A-level students go to Oxford or Cambridge; in Rochdale, only one out of 2,000 candidates did so in that year period. Oxford has more students from China than from North-east England.

Yet elite universities must chose the brightest candidates; they are not the places to correct inequities in the school system. It is the "learning is for losers" culture among the pupils in so many schools that must change.

What is needed, as David Scott, the head of a school in Newcastle with some of the worst GCSE results in England, said last week, is a culture that offers to youngsters from state schools something of the self-worth and self-confidence that the independent sector engenders in its charges. All schools should have what can now be found in only the best schools. Hills Road, Cambridge, and Cockermouth School show that need not be the preserve of the private school.

So back to the Dumbing Down of the Great Fire of London. The boy with whom we began left that primary school two years ago and moved to a selective independent school. Last week at the start of its Speech Day he stepped on to the stage and, at the age of only 11, opened the event, addressing more than a thousand boys, teachers and parents with self-assurance. Towards the end, he stepped on to the stage again, this time to receive the school History Prize. But this is not the story of one boy. It is the story of many boys and girls.

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