How Britain’s private schools lost their grip on Oxbridge
As state-school admissions rise at elite universities, some parents who shelled out for private education regret it
© Edmon de Haro
Brooke Masters JULY 2 2021
“Five years ago, my son would have got a place at Oxford. But now the bar has shifted and he didn’t,” says my friend, a City of London executive who has put several children through elite private schools in Britain. “I think he got short-changed.”
I’ve been hearing this more and more from fellow parents with kids at top day and boarding schools in recent years. Some of it sounds like whining: most of us like to think the best of our progeny. But my friend has a point. After years of hand-wringing about unequal access to elite higher education, admissions standards are finally shifting.
A decade ago, parents who handed over tens of thousands of pounds a year for the likes of Eton College, St Paul’s School or King’s College School in Wimbledon could comfortably assume their kids had a very good chance of attending Oxford or Cambridge, two of the best universities in the world. A 2018 Sutton Trust study showed that just eight institutions, six of them private, accounted for more Oxbridge places than 2,900 other UK secondary schools combined. When the headmaster of Westminster School boasted at an open evening that half the sixth form went on to Oxbridge, approving murmurs filled the wood-panelled hall. (I was there.)
But growing anger about inequality, rising applications from an improved state sector and a flood of international students have prompted Oxford and Cambridge to rethink. They give more credit to students who have overcome barriers on their way to top grades. This means that fewer middling private school students who have been groomed to excel at interviews are getting in.
“We want to select the academically most able — the really strong candidates versus those that are average but have been well-prepared,” says Samina Khan, Oxford’s director of undergraduate admissions.
This is surely fair. But it also means that hothouse independent schools are losing their edge. At St Paul’s, I heard one grouchy father press the high master to explain how he would protect the boys there from “social engineering”.
What should parents do when a policy that is good for society seems bad for their kids? I feel genuine sympathy for anyone concerned for their child’s future, but complaining about a loss of privilege comes across as tone deaf.
At Eton, attended by 20 UK prime ministers including the current one, the number of Oxbridge offers dropped from 99 in 2014 to 48 this year. At King’s College, Wimbledon, offers have fallen by nearly half in two years to 27, The Sunday Times reported in February. Both schools still sit near the top of the national league tables for total offers. But their students are finding it harder to get in, rankling parents who shell out up to £28,000 a year for day school or £44,000 for boarding.
The anger of wealthy, mostly white parents about losing the advantages they expected to be able to buy their children is part of a broader pattern of status anxiety among some sections of the British and American upper classes. It is out of step with reality: children from such backgrounds will typically enjoy greater opportunities and financial security throughout their lives.
Nevertheless, the potency of this anxiety was on display in the US during 2019’s “Varsity Blues” admissions scandal when actors and private equity giants were jailed for trying to buy their kids into Yale and Stanford, among others, with faked entrance test results and counterfeit athletic skills.
“When you have something that is very valuable to people, the system gets distorted,” says Daniel Markovits, a Yale law professor and author of The Meritocracy Trap. “Attending these universities makes a difference in people’s income and status . . . The parents see how much it costs them to live in the neighbourhoods they live in and send children to private schools, and they realise that their children will be in the same bind.”
Outside the wealthiest sections of British society, the main critique of Oxbridge admissions is about too little inclusion, not too much © Edmon de Haro
For decades, some UK private schools traded on their high Oxbridge admission rate to help justify their astronomical and constantly rising fees. If that bargain no longer stands, what are they selling parents instead?
“Knowing what I know now, I would absolutely reconsider my decision” to choose elite boarding schools, the City executive tells me. “The fees are absolutely out of whack with reality.” He even worries that he has disadvantaged his offspring. At his global workplace, he says, applicants who attended top independent schools are treated with a “certain amount of sniffiness. ‘Oh those guys got such a good education, of course they did well. We need someone hungrier.’”
Another parent, who attended Oxford but saw an Eton-educated son rejected, frets that attending a top independent school “has become a label that stays with you for life and it’s not a good label. It clearly means that when they are applying for university or jobs, they are at a disadvantage unless they are truly brilliant.”
Sam Lucy, an archeologist who specialises in Roman and Anglo-Saxon Britain, has served as an admissions tutor at Cambridge since 2009. She has little truck with parents who claim their children are getting the short end of the stick. “Nobody is entitled to get into Cambridge. You have to earn your place by being serious about your subject and going above and beyond the school curriculum. No one should expect to get in, but if they do, they will have deserved it.”
Now director of admissions, Lucy has been asked so many times why smart students are getting turned down that she carries a chart that illustrates what has changed. Since 1981, annual applications to Cambridge have risen from just under 5,000 to 20,426 last year.
Highly selective state sixth forms such as Harris Westminster and Brampton Manor in London have sprung up, partly to prepare children from disadvantaged backgrounds for Oxbridge and other top universities. They not only produce students with high exam scores and impressive essays, but also train them for interviews, an area where posh schools have long excelled.
In 2021, 55 students at Brampton Manor secured conditional Oxbridge offers, exceeding Eton’s 48; most have ethnic minority backgrounds, receive free school meals or were the first in their family to apply for university. Cambridge and Oxford have also had a big increase in overseas applications.
Meanwhile, the two universities, which promise small group teaching by dons and rooms in ancient stone quadrangles, have not expanded appreciably. That means it is roughly four times harder now to get one of the 6,800 places than it was when today’s parents were applying. “That’s the mismatch in expectations. Parents say, ‘I got in and you are as clever as me. Why haven’t they made you an offer?’” Lucy says.
Outside the wealthiest sections of British society, the main critique of Oxbridge admissions is about too little inclusion, not too much. Some Cambridge colleges failed to admit a single black student between 2012 and 2016, and most state-sector students historically came from selective grammar schools or wealthy areas.
“The upper classes have a vice-like grip on Oxford admissions that they will not willingly give up,” Labour MP David Lammy proclaimed in 2018 as he led a campaign for change that helped inspire rapper Stormzy to fully fund two scholarships for black students at Cambridge.
Several of the elite UK private schools were established in the late middle ages to provide free schooling to gifted boys from poorer backgrounds. Over the centuries, fee-paying pupils became more numerous and they took off as training grounds for the establishment and the administration of the British Empire.
Today, private schools educate 6.5 per cent of UK children, but as recently as five years ago they accounted for 42 per cent of Oxford’s domestic intake and 37 per cent at Cambridge. Since then, the private school share has fallen sharply but it is still three in 10. That has sparked resentment among fee-paying parents without assuaging diversity campaigners. “It catches parents in a dilemma,” says Mark Bailey, a former high master of St Paul’s who now lectures at the University of East Anglia. “They may be committed to broad notions of social justice in the workplace and society, yet here is a situation where that aspiration cuts against them.”
Independent school parents point out that state-private ratios that compare Oxbridge offers to the total stock of UK students are misleading. Oxford and Cambridge generally won’t look at students unless they have at least three A or A* grades at A-level, and private schools churned out one of every four of them before the pandemic.
Those results are a key reason parents shell out school fees. “Why the heck would anyone ever pay the thick end of half a million quid (aged 4-18) per child pre-tax to send them to private school if it didn’t give them seriously better grades than someone equally bright who went state?” asked one person on Mumsnet, the online parenting forum.
For decades, some UK private schools traded on their high Oxbridge admission rate to help justify their astronomical and constantly rising fees. If that deal no longer stands, what are they selling parents instead? © Edmon de Haro
Within the pool of high-achieving applicants, the Oxbridge colleges now rely on “contextual admissions” that look at how students have arrived at their top marks. “If someone has done really well despite being in care, that tells you something about their ability,” says Oxford’s Khan. “State schools are doing so much better, particularly in London. We are getting much stronger candidates than we used to. It is getting more competitive for everyone.”
Few private school parents openly dispute the need for this approach. They just hate the impact on their own children. “I agree we need social justice, but the problem needs to be fixed much earlier,” says a St Paul’s mother, who has donated generously to bursary funds that bring less-privileged boys to the school. “These [private school] kids are all really bright and it is unfair to penalise them at this point.”
Of course, not all parents who choose private schools do so expecting their kids will win a top university place. Many are drawn by their exceptional facilities and low student-to-staff ratios. “We never had set in our mind that our kids would be going to Oxbridge or an equivalent,” says Catherine May, who sent two boys to City of London School. “I’ve loved that we have well-rounded children and we were very grateful for the excellent pastoral leadership.”
I attended one of the US’s elite private schools 35 years ago. I and roughly half of the class went on to Harvard and the rest of the Ivy League. These days, the school is still a top Ivy feeder, but that share is down below 30 per cent. Most of Harvard’s undergraduate class is non-white (reflecting the US high-school population) and 55 per cent of undergraduates receive financial aid.
But there are two dirty little secrets that explain why so many springtime posts on my Facebook feed feature parents on the other side of the Atlantic boasting about their children’s college destinations. Top American universities still offer “alumni preference” — children of graduates don’t always get in but they have a much higher acceptance rate — and they of course find spaces for children of big donors. There is a back door for the 0.1 per cent and the well-connected, if not the merely wealthy. Oxford and Cambridge resolutely reject this. Cynics will tell you this is evident in their shabbier facilities and shallower donor pools.
All of which puts the heads of the UK’s elite independent schools in a bind. On the one hand, they are under pressure to justify their tax-exempt status by improving access for poor and minority students, either by offering more bursaries or helping state schools in their neighbourhoods. On the other hand, they must also please their paying customers. And that means preserving their effectiveness at university admissions.
“We feel quite irritated by politicians who bang on about independent-state school ratios,” says Barnaby Lenon, a former head of Harrow School who now chairs the Independent Schools Council. “One-third of the most needy bursary students at Oxbridge are from independent schools and the top state grammar schools are stuffed with wealthy parents.”
Optimists hope that the changing admissions profile will reduce the outsize hold Oxbridge has on the UK’s psyche and its politics. “If more and more really talented kids are pushed to other universities, the reputation of those schools will rise. That’s really valuable for society,” says the Eton parent.
And indeed, many top independent schools now are scrambling to prove they can smooth the path for their students to other brand-name options inside the UK and, increasingly, abroad. They are hiring admissions officers who are experts not only in the requirements for US universities, such as SAT tests, but also for other hot destinations such as Trinity College Dublin, McGill University in Montreal and Bocconi University in Milan.
St Paul’s and St Paul’s Girls’ School even employ recent graduates of top American universities as “Colet Fellows” to coach students through writing the personal essays favoured by the Ivy League. “The obsession with Oxbridge misses the point,” says Sarah Fletcher, SPGS’s high mistress. “Our job is to genuinely guide people to the right schools.” This year, total UK applications to US universities shot up 23 per cent.
That may well be the right choice for students who are attracted to American institutions’ liberal arts approach, which allows them to take a wider range of subjects, Lenon says. But, he adds, “it is not good for the UK if we send too many of our best students abroad because a proportion never come back.”
For independent schools, the growing emphasis on international admissions is all part of the expertise they sell. Consider their mastery of the Oxbridge admissions process, which requires students to apply to a specific college for a specific subject. The elite independent schools maximise acceptance numbers by dispersing applications away from the most oversubscribed subjects and colleges. That helped give the strongest schools an Oxbridge success rate of at least 33 per cent last year.
Then Covid-19 struck and A-levels were cancelled. Oxford and Cambridge had already made their offers, but they were caught up in the chaos. After schools assessed their students, the exams watchdog fed the results through an algorithm that reduced nearly 40 per cent of grades. Universities revoked thousands of conditional offers, with disadvantaged students hit worst.
When the government U-turned, restoring the teacher-assessed grades, Oxford and Cambridge found themselves with hundreds of extra students, driving total acceptances up 12 per cent to 7,692. “I still have no idea how colleges managed to find enough rooms to turn into bedrooms, but thankfully they did, so we didn’t need to insist that anyone defer,” Lucy says.
The bulge and another year of cancelled A-levels have put admissions tutors under pressure — teacher-assessed marks will probably produce grade inflation, but the facilities cannot accommodate another supersized class.
So they are making fewer offers — at Oxford, just 3,541 for 3,300 places, down from 3,932 last year. “The landscape is more competitive than it has ever been,” says David Goodhew, head of Latymer Upper School in west London. “High-flyers are still getting offers but universities were uber cautious because they got their fingers burnt last year.”
Some private school parents worry that admissions tutors, faced with a plethora of candidates with high predicted grades, will focus on improving their diversity statistics. They point to the lower offer numbers at the elite schools. “These great kids with flawless records are getting turned away not just by Oxbridge but Durham?” says the St Paul’s mother. “How can that be?”
At Hills Road, a selective state sixth-form college in Cambridge that gets similar offer numbers to Westminster, Jo Trump, principal, says that she is seeing slightly more Oxbridge offers to students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Now in her fourth year as principal, Trump has spent years trying to convince ambitious parents — some of them Cambridge dons — that it is not the end of the world if their children do not get into Oxbridge.
“Things have changed very dramatically in 30 years,” she says. For parents, “it’s about learning to let go a bit and learning to let students drive the process . . . Our job is to walk alongside them. It is not to go in front and drag them.”
Brooke Masters is the FT’s chief business commentator
Data visualisation by Alan Smith