A blog by Head Master Andrew Halls is being published on The Sunday Times’ website. Subscribers to The Times Online can click on the link from the Parent Power page of the Sunday Times.
“We don’t want thick rich kids”... but the best British universities take between 25% and 40% of their students from independent schools
24th November 2013
Oxford University’s head of admissions assured headlines for himself last week when he stated boldly that Oxford did not want “thick rich” kids at its university. As is typical with so many educational headlines, a moment’s reflection reveals the statement is completely uncontroversial.
Had he said the opposite it would have deserved headlines, and he would have lost his job. So why does stating the stark-staring obvious lead to acres of fascinated newsprint?
It does so, because any such statement is always interpreted as having an implicit, but wholly understood, secondary, meaning. In this case, that would be: “But we don’t mind poor thick kids – anything rather than posh kids from private schools.” I think that is why Mike Nicholson’s bland assertion was covered by every British newspaper, and even made the headlines in The Times of India.
But few artefacts are as sensational in real life as they are shown to be on the packaging, and I knew even before I read on what the statement would really have been. A few lines later, the actual quotation appeared: “I don’t really care whether candidates are poor and bright, or rich and bright. I want the bright ones. If they’re thick and rich, they’re the ones I’m hoping our process can exclude.”
Mike Nicholson will be aware that until we provide a far more consistent level of education to all UK children, then pupils from independent schools, grammar schools, and schools in wealthy catchment areas, will often be advantaged. This may appear to suit a school like mine, but in the long term it damages everybody. So, incidentally, does using the word “thick” to describe children who are not “bright” enough for Oxford, but that is another matter.
Even able children from less well-off homes suffer. Oxford University academics have looked at groups born in Britain in 1946, 1958 and 1970. It compared them with Swedish children from similar years. According to Professor John Goldthorpe, one of the researchers, “The British education system increases the advantage that high ability children have if they come from advantaged backgrounds.” Both in Sweden and Britain, however, the better educated the parents, the more successful the child.
This may not seem particularly surprising, but a good education system really can help level the playing field between the rich and the poor. Academics at Edinburgh University have shown that studying traditional subjects, such as languages, English, maths and science, is the best way to get a good job. Another statement of the utterly obvious, we may feel – but it is astonishing how previous governments conspired with second-rate school management teams to delude children that exactly the opposite was the case. Does anyone remember the spurious ICT qualification that was allowed to count as the equivalent to five GCSE passes?
Maintained schools leapt up the league tables the more passionately they embraced enfeebled qualifications that worked against the long-term interests of their own pupils, with the full connivance of the then Department for Children and Schools and Families. The best independent schools, far from being league table chasing cynics, have kept their focus steadily on what is in the best interests of their pupils, and, because we are free from government interference, have been successful in this aim. To be honest, not many parents would pay our fees if this were not the case.
For example, we remained committed to extra-curricular provision when maintained schools were under pressure in the 1980s to sell their playing fields, and militant trade unions more active in the maintained sector were encouraging teachers to refuse to take school trips or out of hours activities. We were able to move to IGCSEs when GCSE became debased through modularity, in a way that our colleagues in the maintained sector were then unable to do.
We could introduce the IB when every A level exam board seemed to be engaged in a mad race to the bottom with its competitors. We could employ (and retain) the staff we thought would best suit our schools, and provide them with a world in which academic attainment was central to the school mission.
And the outcomes are not hard to see: the proportion of independent school pupils at the UK’s very best universities – the Russell Group – has not diminished over the last decade of egalitarian sabre-rattling. In fact, it has increased to an average of 25.4%. Almost half of the new places created at Russell Group universities over the last decade were filled by independent school entrants. Over 35% of students at UCL, Imperial, Bristol and Durham are taken from independent schools.
And Oxbridge? In 2002, the percentage of independent pupils at Oxford and Cambridge averaged 43%. In 2011, the figure was just over 42%. But perhaps that doesn’t make much of a headline.
Head Master King’s College School, Wimbledon