16 Aug '13

News Letters: Oxford University and the privately educated

As anyone who has taught in both the private and public sector will know, parental support and motivation plays no small part in a young person's response to educational opportunity (Private pupils still have higher chance of place at Oxford, 15 August). Those educated privately are aware their school fees can top £30,000 a year. As a result, they are under enormous pressure to fulfil their parents' hopes and investment. But their educational prospects are outstanding, and they look forward to a university education with continued financial support from their families.

Young people whose parents have low incomes or who rely on benefits, also face huge pressures, but of a different kind. They know how necessary it is for them to find any kind of job in order to supplement the family income. The iniquitous withdrawal of council tax exemptions for those on benefit will worsen this situation. As poor families become poorer, so will the educational prospects of their children. Fifty years ago, Tory-backed grammar schools and grants gave hope to many of the least well-off of my contemporaries. They went to university and found jobs worthy of their potential. The coalition seems determined to reverse this concern for disadvantaged young people, and turn its back on the most needy. Harold Macmillan would have considered this a shameful dereliction of duty.
Rev EJ Penny
Wisbech, Cambridgeshire

• It is untrue to state of classics courses at Oxford that "admissions in most cases requires previous study of Latin and Greek". All courses involving linguistic study – classics, classics and English, classics and modern languages, classics and oriental studies – offer a full range of pathways so that students can be admitted whatever their previous educational opportunities. All applicants for each course are assessed as part of the same process. The criterion that we employ is the same for all: what can this student achieve after four years of intensive and committed tuition?
Professor Matthew Leigh
St Anne's College, Oxford

• Applicants for courses at Oxford who then get three A* grades or more at A-level will have different permutations and combinations of subjects, and so it would be unfair to infer bias using this simplistic measure. Perhaps because Earth sciences insist their geologists study A-level maths (rather than weaker combinations), rather than supposedly acting as a barrier, the fact that they interview a very high proportion of applicants means the department has a high proportion of state-educated students. Indeed, they have an average success rate of 32%, as opposed to 19% for the independent sector, and make up three quarters of their undergraduates. Such efforts should be applauded. In France, those with outstanding baccalaureate results face a further two years swotting at an elite lycée before sitting winner-takes-all exams to study at the grandes écoles and polytechnique without any wider considerations.

Sadly this debate about entry bias fails to consider postgraduate students, for whom we have no data about their schooling or university backgrounds, as selection panels cannot be expected to always get it right. Given this, Oxbridge has got to stop favouring their own graduates, including abolishing closed scholarships, and be equally aggressive in seeking out those they missed first time round.
David Nowell
New Barnet, Hertfordshire

• A young person with an over-developed sense of personal entitlement will be far more confident than one with self-doubts. What is sad is Oxford's unwillingness to address the systematic bias in their processes. Oxford continues to blame the schools and the state system. Getting their academics to change their mindset and behaviour would meet with resistance and require too much effort.
Professor Martyn Sloman
Kingston Business School

• Research has repeatedly shown that state-school students with given A-level grades perform better at Oxford than private-school pupils with the same grades. Perhaps those doing the selection at Oxford need to reconsider the reliability of the interviews and aptitude tests which they use to supposedly choose the students with the best potential.
Dr Catherine Wykes

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