State schooled pupils and Oxbridge entry

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.

Young participation in UK higher education

HEFCE publish some great maps of participation in higher education and, even better, release the data. I’ve reproduced the map of young participation rates below with a slightly finer grained, sequential colour map, which I think helps to pick out the regions of low participation. Areas where fewer young people progress to higher education are highlighted in red.

School choice and paternalism

There is a very interesting report out from the Social Market Foundation that investigates the characteristics parents value in a school. The core result is that less-wealthy families do not choose schools on the basis of academic achievement:


This leads the SMF to express concern that school choice may not lift educational achievement because some parents do not consider it important. They then recommend Government intervention to promote the primacy of academic success. The line they’re treading between free choice and paternalism is a fine one. One the one hand, they want free school choice to improve the quality of schooling. On the other hand, they have a prescriptive view of what school quality means. Read more

Secondary and Tertiary education and opportunity: Why fund them differently?

Note:  Eric has written a much much better and more detailed post here – my post is just a knee-jerk expression of how I consider the issue, and the types of broad principles we need to think about.

One thing I missed during the election was the debate about whether government should pay for tertiary education.  There were a number of people saying “we pay for kids to go to secondary school, why not pay for them to go to university?”.

We have to be clear about why we treat these things differently in order to answer this question – it isn’t just about cost, it is about equality of opportunity.

We fund secondary education as we believe it constitutes a minimum level of education and investment in ALL individuals in New Zealand – a level that is required to give people a fair crack at life and civic engagement.

We do not believe that tertiary education is required for all roles, all types of engagement, and for all people.  As a result, we are instead subsidising a group of people who will undertake this type of education (and receive the return associated with this investment) by taxing those who are not interested in this type of higher level study.  In other words, it is a transfer of resources from people on lower incomes who are less willing/able to take on higher education to those who (over their lifetime) will be on high incomes.

Secondary school education is paid for (and correspondingly compulsory for a long period) to offer opportunities.  Tertiary education is not as heavily subsidised, as we are generally against regressive income transfers.  We already subsidise it to a LARGE degree on the basis of assumed spillovers, and we offer interest free loans on the basis of “equalising opportunity” – but larger subsides would largely be a transfer to the rich hidden in the language of “transformational change” … just like industrial subsides to capitalists.  I find it perplexing that people view such regressive transfers as “left wing” ….

School zoning perpetuates inequalities in society

So says David Grimmond in his discussion of school zoning! (Infometrics link here)

I am not a fan of school zoning.  Its main outcome is to reduce school choices for poorer families.  Although the intentions underpinning the policy are probably noble, it has unintended consequences which on the whole harm the prospects of children from poorer households.

Zoning adds another incentive to move into a community filled with people that are “like” you.  As we know from Schelling, a small incentive for such things can quickly lead to complete segregation.  Rather than enforcing greater equality in the school system, zoning is a feel good policy that ends up reinforcing broader inequalities!

If we honesty want to ensure education provides for everyone in society, David suggests:

It is too simplistic to presume that alternatives to the public system will be sufficient to generate education improvements.  Indeed, the US experience demonstrates that there is a mix of outcomes from charter schools.  But what the US experience with charter schools has provided is the opportunity to learn from their experimentation.  My reading of this evidence is that there are at least three areas that schools can focus on to improve education outcomes:

  • Ensuring that the school maintains standards about expected student behaviour
  • Openly assessing, reviewing, and improving teaching methods
  • Directing better teachers towards students who have the greatest need for improved education outcomes.

Having skills and using them are very different

The OECD have recently released a new survey of skills and it has prompted plenty of wailing about the failings of the English education system. The crucial slide from Andreas Schleicher’s summary is this one: It shows that English adults have excellent literacy skills relative to their peers internationally but young people have fallen well behind. Given the efforts that have been put into the UK’s schooling system over the last few decades it charts a depressing decline. Hearteningly, it is not the full story of the survey. Read more