In The Telegraph, Julia Hartley-Brewer claims that the low percentage of state-schooled pupils accepted by Oxford and Cambridge represents a failure of state schools. Her argument is that Oxford and Cambridge have high entry standards and independently-schooled pupils are far more likely to meet them, hence the strong representation of those pupils at the top institutions.
She’s partly right. She’s right that independently schooled pupils perform better at A-levels, on average. It’s also true that Oxford and Cambridge have very high entry standards, which favours independently-schooled pupils. However, that does not fully explain the low rate of admission for state-schooled pupils.
It’s fairly easy to check because the percentage of state-schooled pupils admitted is one of the Performance Indicators published by HESA each year for all universities. The indicators helpfully include a benchmark that accounts for, among other things, the entry qualifications of students. That means we can compare the actual state-schooled intake for each university against a benchmark that takes Ms Hartley-Brewer’s concerns into account, along with other considerations, such as age, ethnicity and sex.
The chart below shows that we would not expect Oxford and Cambridge to take a high proportion of state-schooled pupils, largely because of their high entry requirements. However, even against that adjusted benchmark, they underperform.