Xbxg32000, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

We, at Oxford, like to think of ourselves as one of the best educational institutions in the world – sure, even the rankings attest to this. It is why we generally have worked so hard to get here, put in countless hours of revision, and spent many sleepless nights worrying about the admissions process. But whenever we take a look at ourselves and ask “Am I really the best of the best? Do I deserve my place here?”, we experience an imposter syndrome that affects students from all walks of life. It’s a very real issue. But it underlines something that is often not discussed in enough detail. Oxford is an undeniably amazing educational opportunity, but it is generally reserved for only a select few. Coming from a state school, middle-class background I thought that my admission here was one based on merit. But after researching I have come to the conclusion that this is not entirely the case. Oxford’s disparity encompasses far more than the private-to-state school divide. It is important to be aware of privilege and acknowledge it. 

While campaigners for educational equity generally stigmatise private school students as privileged and having achieved their success not based on merit, but because of their favourable position in the ‘birth lottery’, this ignores a larger issue. The belief that a homogeneous education experience is provided to every state school child can be disproved by many statistics. State schools themselves can be distinguished into separate categories: in particular, grammar and comprehensive. Broadly speaking, grammar schools are academically selective, which inherently makes them socioeconomically exclusive, though some comprehensives are selective also. Instead of paying for school fees, parents frequently instead pay for private tuition to help their children pass entrance exams, or buy houses in the catchment areas of ‘good’ schools – often at far higher prices than the market average. ‘Soft’ factors also influence a systemic cycle as parents who are themselves well-educated middle-class professionals are more likely to have the time and resources to push them into an academically selective school and be able to help with schoolwork and entrance exam preparation. I live in an area where the school system is overloaded and this creates readily observable problems. The transition to secondary school is unfortunately a pinnacle point that decides whether a student is likely to get into Oxbridge. 

Socio-economically selective schools are more likely to receive donations from parents which translates to being able to invest more in the school providing their children’s education. Parents of children at these schools are also more likely to be able to pay for extra tuition, music lessons, development courses, sports, and other extracurricular activities, and buy books and technology needed to help their child excel in education and stand out in admissions. Furthermore, the type of school often determines in large part the quality of teaching. It is not a coincidence that there were no comprehensive schools among the 25 state schools and colleges which sent the most students to Oxbridge from their 2017 cohort. Or that more than 60% of Oxford University students went to private or grammar school.


Successful Oxbridge applicants have had to achieve consistent top grades in exams, and this is inherently problematic. The examination system in the UK is broken and unfit for purpose. It is rife with systemic errors and injustice. In 2019, 28.5% of GCSE students failed English Language – a qualification required for a wide variety of jobs. This group has been named ‘the forgotten third’ by many educational experts: “the product of the system of comparable outcomes whereby the spread of GCSE grades is pegged to what cohorts of similar ability achieved in the past”. When the GCSE qualification was introduced in 1986, it was groundbreaking; designed in an era when the majority of students were leaving school after exams, it helped give students the best chance of achieving highly. Yet since 2013, when young people were for the first time required to stay in education until 18, GCSEs are now often labelled ‘obsolete’. The average student will take 35 separate papers – a ‘madness’ as one education expert described it, with a profound impact on mental health. 

A concerning study found that in 2018, for both A level and GCSE, about 1 in 4 grades awarded are wrong. This translates to 200,000 A Level and 1.3 million GCSE grades incorrect purely because of a  factor outside the student’s control. In 2021, with teacher-assessed grades, the grade disparities were profound, with 70% of A-level results were A* or A for independent school pupils in England, compared with 39% for comprehensive pupils. The latest 2022 in-person exams were interesting, while students attending independent schools in England achieved top GCSE grades at twice the rate of those attending state schools, the greatest fall of those securing top grades was seen in those private school pupils – nearly four times the national average at 8.2%. Why were private schools allowed to inflate their grades, while those state schools were forced to downgrade their students because of historical factors? 

One of the major issues with assessments is that they are complex interconnected performance measures – used to judge the school, individual teachers, and head teachers. This means the headteacher is incentivised to remove underachieving pupils as it is not in their interest to have them ‘bring down’ the school’s grade average – achieved by off-rolling to special education. Data reveals one in 12 schoolchildren in 2012-17 were removed from rolls without explanation

Examination grades are not representative of a student; rather, they are multi-faceted in nature. Students from deprived socio-economic backgrounds were consistently marked down in the teacher-assessed grades of the COVID cohorts. These grades are emblematic of disparities in teaching: a March 2020 survey found that out of 8,000 teachers, just 14% of state school teachers said that while in lockdown they could continue with the same content and pace of learning. In private schools, that figure was 60%, and a further 30% only minimally changed their content. Most of their pupils barely missed a beat. But this educational divide does not suddenly appear. Government research found that on average, 40% of the overall gap between socio-economically disadvantaged 16-year-olds and their peers has already emerged by the age of five. The lottery of childhood birth is a politically sensitive issue and discussion around how the best home learning environment can be provided and how parents can be helped to support their child is an enigma. 

Therefore, some contextual assessment of socioeconomic background with the potential of reduced offers could help. “There needs to be a clear admission that context has a variant on your achievement,” one education expert remarked to me. “The vicious nature of learning to pass vocational exams must be terminated.” Assessment, with contextual adjustment, that focuses on skills, with ample time and ability to access equitable resources, offers a compromise.  A broader contextual assessment that adjusts for private schools, and the so-called middle-class advantage, could help level the playing field. However, determining such important decisions purely based on statistics is rightly controversial; there is often much that figures conceal. To fully embrace the potential education has to be a transformative social level up is a matter of urgency for many educational experts. 

At Oxford, the way to achieve this is clear. A government briefing paper on Oxbridge ‘elitism’ provides the evidence. Oxbridge admissions are generally from a concentrated number of schools. In 2019, 11% of entrants were from ten schools; 30% of Cambridge applicants were from 50 schools, 20 of which were independent, five overseas institutions, 18 grammar schools, and only one comprehensive school. Unfortunately, Oxford does not identify all grammar schools in its admissions data, since Oxford’s school type data does not break down academies into grammar and comprehensives, and most grammar schools are academies. This shows a neglect of the grammar school issue. 

Overall in 2017, 3.9% of pupils from grammar schools went to Oxbridge compared with 0.8% at comprehensive schools and 0.3% at sixth form colleges/centres and other 16-19 institutions. The top 140 schools and colleges (only 6% of UCAS application centres) made up half of all acceptances. Two private schools – Westminster School and St Paul’s Girl School, both independent – achieved the highest Oxbridge hit rates over the five years between 2017 and now, constituting 49.9% and 49.0% (of pupils who went on to university) respectively. These figures are stark when realising that 60% of state schools sixth forms and colleges in England sent no students to either Oxbridge or Cambridge from their 2017 cohort. Contextual awareness in the admissions process is needed to provide equal opportunity for study at Oxford.  It could be said that by paying for a child to go to one of these schools, parents are effectively buying better odds for Oxbridge admissions. At my local level, I was one of two people from my comprehensive secondary school to be offered a place at Oxbridge. The nearest grammar school had 16 Oxbridge offers, with a similarly sized sixth form. 

No official statistics exist for the percentage of successful applicants from each school category. My own analysis of the Top 100 schools showed that at the top level this is fairly average – with 32% of State non-grammar successful, 35% of state grammar and 31% of Independent applicants achieving an offer. However, this list is dominated by 48 independent schools. Despite similar success rates at the top level, easy access to information about the entire distribution of Oxford offers is concerningly hard to discover. Oxford has yet to enlighten us on the more complex divide between pupils that extends beyond the private-state divide, which is fully evident by the statistics above. Some may argue that private and grammar schools have a larger pool of students who can apply because they have a larger proportion of pupils achieving the top grades. Yet the proportional difference in top grades between these groups is too insignificant to be a full explanation. And the focusing on exam grades is inherently part of the problem, as this is largely contextually determined. 

Oxford University is making some welcome advances in outreach and does already theoretically include some contextual data in admissions decisions. But this is receiving fervent resistance. In May a Cambridge academic claimed: White private schoolboys ‘are the most disadvantaged group due to culture war’ and said school names should ‘probably’ be removed from application forms to avoid this. This is a grave prospect for social progress, as it would further exacerbate the head-start these pupils enjoy. Fortunately, there are initiatives already in place like the LMH foundation year, in recognition “that many students had the potential to study at Oxford but had not been able to achieve the necessary grades due to their socio-economic circumstances.” This programme provides a foundational year of study to help level up potential Oxford students so they study for an undergraduate degree. Since the programme started in 2016 it has taken in 59 students – with 43 going on to be matriculated undergraduate students. The wider university is starting its Astrophoria Foundation Year programme in 2023, “a one-year intensive academic course which will bridge any gaps that might exist between school and our academically challenging undergraduate courses.” It is fully paid for and has the capacity to be truly revolutionary. However the course will not cover all subjects, is only available at ten colleges, and does not include international students. The cohort is limited to only 50 students – a tiny number considering the extent of the problem. This will inherently make even this outreach programme selective. My subject, Geography, has a first year as a separate course – itself intended to level up and out across the cohort. Would there really be a need for a foundation year if more resources and help were given to students after a more equitable admissions process?

The real challenge facing the University of Oxford is to erode the comparative advantage that students at a select few schools enjoy and make the admissions process more equitable without favouring one group over another. Certainly, successful applicants should not be those who had access to the right interview training, personal statement workshops, and other resources. The stressful admissions process that current Oxford students face should be no more. The advantage private school students enjoy in admissions, and in their domination of Oxford culture, would cease. If attention were paid to avoiding the current inept generalisations and focusing moved towards individualistic factors – contextual assessment would be a success. Oxford would achieve its purpose as a diverse convergence place for academic improvement and achievement of excellence to a far greater degree if it chose its students not based on their current level, but on their unrealised potential. These would be the students markedly helped by having this qualification on their CV – not those who already have the ‘right’ connections and will prosper regardless. This alumni community would to every corner of the UK return investment. It would also level up other universities, which would experience an inflow of resources from an increase in wealthy students. Of course, it would require the university to be redefined as an institution – but this would finally break it free of its bourgeois past. To have the opportunity to study at such a revered institution would allow many to gain key skills and distribute them across the country equitably. Oxford should introduce more holistic and wide-ranging contextual assessment and become a role model for institutions everywhere.