A recent study showed that two fifths of state school teachers would not recommend even their brightest pupils to Oxbridge, and that in the entirety of 2013 not one pupil who had received free school meals was accepted to study there.
Add to this the fact that despite the fact roughly 93% of the British youth attend state schools but university attendance is around 50/50 allocation between state and private, you can’t argue that this shows the British education system is failing a huge amount of people who carry huge potential.
Even the government, who are often loath to criticise a system of education envied worldwide, have said that universities must do more to help poorer students – they claimed it would currently take 50 years to close disparities between richer and poorer students in university participation.
However, a way to at least marginally help disparities in the sphere of higher education is simply to allow universities to give lower grade requirements to students from low-achieving state schools. It would not hugely change the current system, so would not take any more money from the already depleted education budget, and is easy to put in place, which will incentivise universities.
Some fellow benefactors of the private system may complain that this is “unjust”, but that is simply hypocrisy at it’s worst, seeing as we are given an advantage from the first day we step into the wood paneled rooms of private school. Private school is the ultimate silver spoon in terms of university applications, with entire departments dedicated simply to ensuring even the most untalented gain a space at a prestigious university to keep the ratings up and attract even more money.
Now I don’t want to generalise, as I have no personal experience with state schools, but it is fairly intuitive that any school rated inadequate, or even satisfactory, by OFSTED will not be pushing and nurturing their pupils in the same way a school funded by demanding parents will. It’s not the staff’s fault, but the fault of a constantly squeezed budget and poor incentives for inspired and creative teachers. Yes, there are many incredibly good state schools, but the supposedly equal place lottery system in fact means it is the richest who attend the best schools generally – a good local comprehensive causes house prices in an area to rocket, gentrifying the area and pricing out those who desperately need quality schooling to break the poverty cycle, leaving good schools to those who can afford the million-pound houses.
Consequently, those attending the poorer state schools will in fact be poorer, reinforcing a vicious cycle where those who need free education the most are in fact barred from it. Again, not to over-stereotype, but it seems that the majority of attendees at worse state schools, therefore, will be “working class”. Many pupils may be in a more academically deprived situation as their parents were uneducated, which automatically puts them at a disadvantage. This disadvantage does not only come into play in schools, but during uni applications. The families may not have the kind of discussions that both stimulate the mind and prepare you for the challenging situation of application interviews, mostly because the families may not have the contacts for references, or work experience related to the subject, because in many of our systems the phrase “it’s not what you know, but who you know” can still be considered applicable.
An even bigger disparity relates to the general application in terms of personal statements and UCAS forms, which as most of you reading this will know, is a tenuous process. The majority of private schools assign teachers to check, and recheck, and check again the personal statements, subject-specific extracurriculars are encouraged and access to talks and alumni academics is easy. I am in no way saying that private school students work any less – simply they are given resources and tuition that undeniably makes the process easier.
In fact, as I was starting this article, I received the good news that Bristol, a top rated Russell Group uni, will in fact “make offers two grades lower than the standard offer for applicants who have been at school with low-achieving A-level grades”. Their reason given is to ensure more students are taken for their potential, not their current achievement level.
And this is what the whole argument boils down to. A counter-argument is that having lower-educated students in university courses will drag down those who had better grades, slowing their pace. But if you think as I do, that universities should not be for simply educating those who are already achievers, but for creating a diverse environment where those with potential are given opportunities to reach it, then it is inconsequential if it takes one term for some of the people to catch up.
Privately educated students who complain of unfairness towards them are simply being hypocritical, seeing as they make up the 7% of Britain who have the best education simply because they have more money. Lets hope other universities soon follow the example of Bristol: it’s known worldwide that education is the key to reducing disparities, so to begin actually making Britain’s higher education system the best in the developed world, they need to make it fair for all.
words by Millie Lord