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Don't apply to Oxbridge, say teachers

60% of teachers at state secondary schools would not advise even their brightest pupils to apply to Oxbridge
Xin Fan on Thursday 3rd May 2012
Photograph: Amy Rollason

Nearly a fifth of state school teachers never advise their brightest pupils to apply to Oxbridge, with only 44% doing so at all – a figure down on five years ago, according to the latest research.

In response to the question ‘Which of the following best describes the frequency with which you advise the academically-gifted pupils that you teach to apply to Oxbridge?’ only 16% of teachers said ‘always’. 48% answered ‘rarely’ or ‘never’ and 10% did not know.
The survey of 730 teachers working in 468 English secondary schools in the maintained sector was carried out by an independent body, the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER), on behalf of The Sutton Trust, an educational charity aimed at promoting social mobility through education.
Responding to Cherwell’s concerns about sample size, the NFER affirmed that, “Our panel of teachers is nationally representative and we feel these surveys provide sufficient information to gauge current opinions within the teaching profession.”
Sutton Trust chairman Sir Peter Lampl was troubled by the figures. “The sad consequence of these findings is that Oxford and Cambridge are missing out on talented students in state schools, who are already under-represented at these institutions based on their academic achievements. We need to do much more to dispel the myths in schools about Oxbridge and other leading universities.'
Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), insisted however that teachers were not careers advisers and that students were entitled access to independent, qualified advisers when making educational choices. “Applying to Oxbridge is only one of many appropriate routes for our brightest young people. Social mobility is about far more than entry to Oxbridge.'
Hannah Cusworth, OUSU Vice-President responsible for access, said the findings sit uncomfortably next to research carried out by OUSU amongst potential Oxford applicants from non-traditional backgrounds. “It was clear that the students took what their teachers said about applying to university to heart. Teachers' negative attitudes towards Oxbridge need to be turned around if access is to be widened.”
“The teachers that the University most needs to reach are those are most reluctant to engage with Oxford. School leaders, the government and these teachers themselves need to take more responsibility, instead of just blaming Oxbridge.”
Angela Trigg, principal of London Academy, opened in 2004 as one of Labour’s five flagship academy schools, was adamant that this was not the case, telling Cherwell that “far from discouraging students, it is an explicit intention that as many of our students as possible attend Oxbridge”.
Dr Graham Wright, a headmaster in Rochdale, gave a more nuanced defence.  Rochdale submitted only 13 applications to Oxford last year, the second lowest of all local authorities in England. 
He told Cherwell: “My colleagues do recommend Oxbridge to our brightest, if we believe them to be 'bright enough'. Many of our students, whilst capable of attaining good degrees, lack the vital edge necessary for Oxbridge consideration. It is not appropriate for all of our students, even our brightest, as many of them will not be good enough, and we would be setting them up to fail.
“We would always push those students capable of Oxbridge study. If we do consider them to have some potential, we encourage them to take part in access and help prepare them for interview.  
“In fifteen years of being a state school headmaster I have rarely come across teachers biased against Oxbridge.  Many of us realise and want our students to benefit from the opportunities that successful study at Oxbridge brings.”
However, an unnamed teacher at an inner-city comprehensive, writing on the Guardian website, voiced frustration at “the way the other teachers spoke about Oxbridge and other highly selective universities like Durham and Bristol”.
“I don't think it's any of our business whether we think it's elitist or 'not for the likes of them'. When I have taken groups to Cambridge, they have been overwhelmed by how different it is from their own environments, but really excited by the idea that they could be part of it. We mustn't inflict our prejudices on our students.”
First-year Hertford historian Rhys Owens owes his success to the support of his “amazing” history teacher. However, he added, “My teachers were really caught up in the misconceptions about Oxford, and some of them didn't expect me to get in. Even the ones who did have faith had no clue how the system worked.”
The survey also showed that almost three-quarters of respondents thought that state school pupils are in the minority at Oxbridge, when the Sutton Trust lists the actual figure as 57%. 64% believe that state school pupils form less than 40% of the student body, when at Oxford this has never been in the case in at least the last two decades.
Founder of the high-profile West London Free School, Toby Young, was unsurprised by the findings. Young studied PPE at Brasenose before a successful career in journalism. Speaking to Cherwell, he remarked, “When I was at Oxford, I discovered how little encouragement most sixth formers in comprehensives were getting from their teachers.
“The main problem was anti-Oxbridge prejudice within the teaching profession. Oxford was viewed as an elitist institution full of posh boys carrying teddy bears. I still think that image persists today.”
“I think things are gradually improving. There's a whole cadre of new state schools which are unapologetically aspirational on behalf of their pupils, and a new generation of teachers, many of whom have come up through the Teach First programme, who are really committed to getting more children from working class backgrounds into Russell Group universities.”
 
A spokesperson for the University called the results “frustrating”. “State school students are in the majority here, we run over 1500 outreach events a year, and we spend millions on activities. Sadly, just one bad headline can unravel that work in an instant, so we don’t blame the teachers: media coverage of Oxford tends to be negative and stereotyped.
 
‘Teachers play such an important role in getting students to aim for Oxford. These findings make us more determined than ever to continue our work with them. Misperceptions are a hurdle we must overcome.”
 

The recent survey, conducted on behalf of the Sutton Trust, also found that almost three-quarters of teachers also thought that state school pupils are in the minority. In fact, 57% of Oxford’s undergraduate body is made up of pupils from the maintained sector. Moreover, 64% believe that state school pupils form less than 40% of the student body, when at Oxford this has never been in the case in at least the last two decades.

Sir Peter Lampl, Chairman of the Sutton Trust, commented, “The sad consequence of these findings is that Oxford and Cambridge are missing out on talented students in state schools, who are already under-represented at these institutions based on their academic achievements. We need to do much more to dispel the myths in schools about Oxbridge and other leading universities.”

When asked with what frequency they would recommend their brightest pupils to apply to Oxford, only 16% of teachers said ‘always’. Just under half answered ‘rarely’ or ‘never’.

Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), insisted that teachers were not careers advisers, and that students were entitled access to independent, qualified advisers when making educational choices. He said, “Applying to Oxbridge is only one of many appropriate routes for our brightest young people. Social mobility is about far more than entry to Oxbridge.”

Hannah Cusworth, OUSU Vice-President for Access, said, “It was clear that the students took what their teachers said about applying to university to heart. Teachers' negative attitudes towards Oxbridge need to be turned around if access is to be widened.”

“The teachers that the University most needs to reach are those are most reluctant to engage with Oxford. School leaders, the government and these teachers themselves need to take more responsibility, instead of just blaming Oxbridge.”

However, Angela Trigg, principal of London Academy, opened in 2004 as one of Labour’s five flagship academy schools, told Cherwell, “Far from discouraging students, it is an explicit intention that as many of our students as possible attend Oxbridge”.

Dr Graham Wright, a headmaster in Rochdale, defended state schools’ reasons for discouraging applications to Oxbridge. He told Cherwell, “Many of our students, whilst capable of attaining good degrees, lack the vital edge necessary for Oxbridge consideration. It is not appropriate for all of our students, even our brightest, as many of them will not be good enough, and we would be setting them up to fail.

“We would always push those students capable of Oxbridge study. If we do consider them to have some potential, we encourage them to take part in access and help prepare them for interview.

“In fifteen years of being a state school headmaster I have rarely come across teachers biased against Oxbridge.  Many of us realise and want our students to benefit from the opportunities that successful study at Oxbridge brings.”

Rochdale submitted only 13 applications to Oxford last year, the second lowest of all local authorities in England.

Another teacher, who works at an inner-city comprehensive, writing on the Guardian website, voiced frustration at “the way the other teachers spoke about Oxbridge and other highly selective universities like Durham and Bristol”.

They added, “I don't think it's any of our business whether we think it's elitist or 'not for the likes of them'. When I have taken groups to Cambridge, they have been overwhelmed by how different it is from their own environments, but really excited by the idea that they could be part of it. We mustn't inflict our prejudices on our students.”

First-year Hertford historian Rhys Owens told Cherwell that he owes his success to the support of his “amazing” history teacher. However, he added, “My teachers were really caught up in the misconceptions about Oxford, and some of them didn't expect me to get in. Even the ones who did have faith had no clue how the system worked.”

Founder of the high-profile West London Free School, Toby Young, was unsurprised by the findings. Young studied PPE at Brasenose before a successful career in journalism. Speaking to Cherwell, he remarked, “When I was at Oxford, I discovered how little encouragement most sixth formers in comprehensives were getting from their teachers.

“The main problem was anti-Oxbridge prejudice within the teaching profession. Oxford was viewed as an elitist institution full of posh boys carrying teddy bears. I still think that image persists today.

“I think things are gradually improving. There's a whole cadre of new state schools which are unapologetically aspirational on behalf of their pupils, and a new generation of teachers, many of whom have come up through the Teach First programme, who are really committed to getting more children from working class backgrounds into Russell Group universities.”

A spokesperson for the University called the results “frustrating”. They added, “State school students are in the majority here, we run over 1500 outreach events a year, and we spend millions on activities. Sadly, just one bad headline can unravel that work in an instant, so we don’t blame the teachers: media coverage of Oxford tends to be negative and stereotyped.

“Teachers play such an important role in getting students to aim for Oxford. These findings make us more determined than ever to continue our work with them. Misperceptions are a hurdle we must overcome.”

Responding to Cherwell’s concerns about sample size, the NFER said, “Our panel of teachers is nationally representative and we feel these surveys provide sufficient information to gauge current opinions within the teaching profession.”

The survey of 730 teachers working in 468 English secondary schools in the maintained sector was carried out by an independent body, the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER), on behalf of The Sutton Trust, an educational charity aimed at promoting social mobility through education. 

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