There's nothing you can't fix with a quota!

If by "fix" you mean "wreck". Peter Wilby, writing in Comment is Free, starts with a germ of a good idea - then proceeds to leap off the ledge of sanity and plunge down the side of the chasm of madness. How should we address the problem of less than 50% of Oxbridge entrants being state school pupils?

Oxbridge says it can't recruit more from the state sector until schools send them more highly qualified pupils. The schools say the pupils won't go – or won't aspire to go – until the universities appear less exclusive. Bold measures are needed to break this impasse.
A reasonable position to take; what bold measures did you have in mind, Peter? How should we encourage smart state school pupils to apply to Oxbridge in the first place, and how should we help them shine in A-levels and the entrance exams?
Suppose Oxford and Cambridge were to ask every state school to identify, at 15, its brightest pupils academically (one, two or three, depending on size). Suppose those pupils were given every possible support and guidance in A-level subject choice and teaching.
Wow. (Checks URL.) Yes, this still appears to be The Guardian. I can't believe what I'm reading. This sounds... elitist. I do see one or too teeny, weeny problems though. If the top pupils at Maths, Science, English Lit, History and French are not the same person, how do you choose two or three of them for this intensive study course? Draw lots? But, nitpicking aside, the kernel of the idea sounds good. So this gives us (finger in the air, say 2 pupils out of an average year of 200, so 1% - oh, the irony) 1% x 880,000 Year 13 A-Level students, i.e. 8800 "elite" pupils.

Looking at the Independent Schools Council 2012 report we find that:

  • a shade over 90% of ISC school pupils go on to post-18 education, compared to a UK average of 48%; and
  • there are about 42,000 ISC Year 13 (A-Level) students compared to a UK total of 860,000;
Oxford has about 17300 applicants for 3200 undergraduate places; 57.7% of admitted UK students came from the state sector. Cambridge has about 16000 applicants for 3400 places and one assumes a similar state/private split. So for Oxbridge we're looking at 6600 places and 33300 applicants.

Given that, what does Mr. Wilby recommend?

Suppose, above all, Oxbridge allocated to this pool of talent a fixed proportion of its places – initially, perhaps, 70%, but rising to over 90%, so that its UK intake became representative of the general school population – with those who did best at A-level getting preference.
70% of Oxbridge places is 4620 places - more than half of your "elite" pupils will be getting in by this method. You've shrunk the private sector students from 43% to 30% of the intake, so one third of private sector pupils who were able enough to be admitted to Oxbridge will be frozen out. Incidentally, what effect is this going to have on the admission stats of the remaining Russell Group universities - will you see a huge bulge in private sector entries there, squeezing out state pupils? What are you going to do about that? And it's a bit of bad luck for any state pupil who isn't selected for elite coaching. What about late developers who are bored by GCSE but shine at the more rigorous A-level studies? They'll face more acute competition for the remaining 30% of Oxbridge places with the higher-calibre private school pupils. Let's not even think what happens if you crank the 70% state sector minimum to 90%.

Wilby continues to throw out irrelevant facts to try to bolster his ideas:

Several research studies show that, on average, students from maintained schools perform better in degree exams than their fee-charging-school counterparts with the same A-level grades.
Yes. You'll note that Oxbridge has now more or less given up on A-levels and do their own entrance exams and interviews precisely to avoid this problem. Is there any study that shows to any reasonable level of confidence that state school pupils at Oxbridge perform better than private school pupils? I suspect the differences are noisy and subject-specific. And he addresses the unequal academic attainment of state schools thus:
Middle-class parents would clamour to get their children into comprehensives in disadvantaged areas in hope of them grabbing one of those precious places.
Oh Lordy. Where to start? There's a step function here, Peter. If your child is not number 1 or number 2 in their year (and relative rankings are generally volatile over years) you gain no advantage from this scheme. I'd wager a significant sum of money that this scheme would make next to no difference to school intakes.

Worse yet, Peter, this won't work. Speaking for myself and the high achievers I know, we are motivated by competition. We need to be studying a subject with several other people who are as good as or better than us. We are competitive, we need a spur to achieve and excel, and (friendly) rivalry provides this spur. Private schools achieve their success in part by creating a hothouse of high achievers who reach further together than they could by themselves. Trying to get 2-3 students to cram for two years is destined to fail miserably.

...this cannot be described as social engineering. It would be educational engineering.
This may be news to you, Peter, but engineering involves a significant amount of maths and rigour. Your half-wit ideas involve neither.
Mike Baker is unwell.
If he's just read this half-arsed poorly-thought-out piece, I'm not surprised.

Commentator agbagb points out the educational term that was mysteriously absent from Wilby's piece:

When I was a (bright, working class) kid in Birkenhead in the 60s and 70s, that's what Grammar Schools did - and the teachers that led that charge were largely Oxbridge grads who'd gone into (state) teaching, and whose mission was "talent spotting". But, as I recall, we then tossed all that away, and decided that Grammar Schools were themselves elitist.
Wow - that worked well!

If you want more state pupils to gain Oxbridge places, you have to improve the education given to them by state schools. This certainly will involve a certain amount of elitism and picking winners, but give the schools some extra money and let them do it themselves rather than imposing centrally-planned targets.

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