Independent Schools Widen Participation

Posted on: 27 Mar 2014

By Chris Ramsey, Headmaster, The King’s School Chester, and co-Chair of the HMC/GSA Universities Committee.

This blog first appeared on the Sutton Trust website -

Access to Higher Education remains something of a political football, and one politicians of all parties seem to enjoy kicking around. Of course, the university sector is one which has been shaken quite a bit (fees, marketisation, now controversies over Vice Chancellors’ salaries and sector pay and conditions), all largely to its improvement. But myths stick fast, and one of those myths surrounds the role played in Higher Education by independent schools.

Along with a convenient picture of privilege, fuelled by muttering about the Coalition Cabinet, and a murky one of danger, with teenage problems supposedly worse in high achieving schools, the image of an independent schools’ closed shop in places at top universities is a powerful one. It makes sense to the public: fee-paying parents must be paying for something, and the something they are most likely to be paying for is access to good universities. Stories continue to abound about the domination of the Russell Group by independent schools... how do they do it? Surely it must be by knowing the secrets, and keeping them to themselves.

Well, the truth is different. HMC and GSA, which represent most of the leading independent secondary schools in the UK, commission each year a series of surveys into access to Higher Education. We analyse figures from our schools carefully, track changes from year to year and ask for detailed comments on fairness from our member schools. We do this because good quality data informs the choices our own students make, of course, but also because amongst the fierce opinions and often rather ill-informed debates about access to Higher Education, some facts are important.

We do it, too, frankly to hold some of the top universities to account. Oxbridge and the Russell Group can, by and large, control their admissions, the former two universities in particular so sought-after that no-one is really going to complain when they don’t get a place. But it’s important that the consumer (the student) sees some evidence of fairness, that applicants don’t all meekly creep away if rejected, that someone gathers data and feedback from youngsters and brings it to admissions tutors’ attention.

So, for example, our Oxbridge survey this year told us yet again that some candidates are given insufficient feedback, that Admissions Tests are often opaque and subjective, and that candidates are kept waiting around too long. We sent to the Admissions Offices of both universities some detailed feedback on a largely fair, but imperfect set of systems. Our sample of about 10% of their applicants is small, but robust, and the analysis is detailed, so that we are able to hold to account the offices of the country’s top two universities in a way no-one else does. Not just for ourselves: we don’t just want our candidates to be successful, we want all good applicants to have a good experience, and for the system to identify the best candidates efficiently and sensitively.

More importantly, though, our surveys of schools’ work on university entrance gives pretty impressive evidence of partnerships between the independent and maintained sector. This year, we asked for feedback from 148 leading independent schools (representing 3,719 Oxbridge applications – about 10% of Oxbridge applications this year ... not massive, but significant), and in particular we asked them whether they helped any maintained school pupils with preparation for top universities.

What would you expect? You might expect top football clubs to help their community youth teams, but would you expect them to help coaching other professional clubs, their competitors? You might expect businesses to share facilities with the community, but would you expect them to share commercial confidences?

Well how many readers will guess what messages came through. 83 of our 148 schools gave full examples of regular, serious (and free) programmes aimed at helping state school pupils to get into top universities. This of course, is important work, for which universities get government credit (literal credit, I mean) and which they shout about from the rooftops.

How many commentators would guess that 46 schools – a third of those polled – give free practice interviews to local state school pupils. This is not, by the way, to little handfuls of the brightest: one school described interviewing 80+ state school candidates over a two-week period to help them get Oxbridge places. Another did 24 interviews with local Sixth Form College applicants.

Would the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills have known that 21 of the 148 schools we polled, gave workshops to help applications, including at least one full-blown (free) Summer School, and many who give help in preparing for admissions tests. 34 of our polled schools run regular conferences or evenings on access to HE, such as events aimed at younger children aspiring to be medics, sponsored by my own school.

In HMC and GSA schools, and in particular through the excellent work of HE advisors and time spent on links with universities, a wealth of specialist advice has been built up, enabling bright students to be guided through the minefields of medicine applications, choices of Maths modules, IB equivalence and aptitude tests. We don’t keep that advice to ourselves: we want access to Higher Education to be clear, fair and not predestined according to how good your Head of Sixth Form is. That’s why we do this work.

Of course this is still relatively small beer. But it’s also the tip of the iceberg. Independent schools have traditionally been a bit meek about their social role ... do the public know how many pupils at independent schools are on free school meals, for example, given a wonderful education NOT at the state’s expense? Do the public know how dependent top HEIs are on independent schools ... not just because we people their Science, technology and languages departments, but because we help to open up that avenue to all students, by being centres of excellent Higher Education preparation for all?

This is genuinely sector-blind help. Some students – who should perhaps have more help from the state – rely on us, or at least gain some benefit from us. We’re politically neutral and doing our best to plug a gap. Our help to other students shouldn’t be necessary. But it is, and for their sakes, we’re happy to give it.

Chris Ramsey Headmaster, The King’s School Chester, and co-Chair of the HMC/GSA Universities Committee

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