Education Sec: Oxbridge should not 'tilt the system' to accept more state school pupils

14 May 2022, 10:07 | Updated: 14 May 2022, 10:22

The Education Secretary has said Britain should be "very proud" of its private schools
The Education Secretary has said Britain should be "very proud" of its private schools. Picture: Alamy

By Megan Hinton

The Education Secretary has said Britain should be "very proud" of its private schools as he hit out at suggestions that elite universities should "tilt the system" to accept more pupils from state schools.

Nadhim Zahawi has pushed back against the idea that Oxford and Cambridge should accept more pupils from state schools and exclude the children "who are performing".

Cambridge University vice-chancellor Professor Stephen Toope recently told private schools to accept they will get fewer students into Oxbridge in the future.

Professor Toope said the university would be "welcoming others" rather than telling students from private schools "we don't want you".

Mr Zahawi, however, said it was the job of Government to reduce the "attainment gap" between the state and private sectors by increasing the quality of state schools.

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"I think it should be based on merit and evidence," the Tory, who was promoted to his current role in Boris Johnson's 2021 Cabinet reshuffle, told The Times.

His comments come after a Cambridge academic has suggested that privately educated white boys are being disadvantaged in the Oxbridge university admissions process due to a "culture wars" on "privilege".

The Minister continued: "The thing to do is deliver great outcomes for all children, wherever they live, and especially our most disadvantaged children. Which is why I'm flexing the system towards those areas that have fewer great schools or good, outstanding schools.

"You don't create a system that people feel is fair and equitable by in some way thinking that there is an easy fix. The best thing you can do is create schools in the state system that are as good as independent schools. Which we are.

"I need to continue my journey to deliver more outstanding and high performing schools. That's the right strategy. Not to say actually, let me just accept that we're not going to produce outstanding schools so let me just tilt the system away from children who are performing."

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Nadhim Zahawi has pushed back against the idea that Oxford and Cambridge should accept more pupils from state schools
Nadhim Zahawi has pushed back against the idea that Oxford and Cambridge should accept more pupils from state schools. Picture: Alamy

The 54-year-old told the newspaper he wanted private schools to become more involved with the state sector, noting the efforts of Eton College in opening three state sixth forms in Dudley, Middlesbrough and Oldham to help pupils gain admission to Oxbridge.

"If we all set aside our sort of tribalism and look at the evidence, we will deliver great outcomes for every child," Mr Zahawi said.

"If we do that, and I can demonstrate for the next two and a half years I've done my job properly, then we'll have made a real difference to the lives of children up and down the country."

Professor Toope said earlier in May his institution would "have to keep making it very, very clear we are intending to reduce over time the number of people who are coming from independent school backgrounds into places like Oxford or Cambridge".

"Individual students who are talented, we would want them, but they're going to be competing against an ever-larger pool because there are more students coming from state schools who are seeing a potential place for themselves at Cambridge or Oxford or other Russell Group universities."

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A Cambridge academic said privately educated white boys are being disadvantaged due to a "culture wars" on "privilege"
A Cambridge academic said privately educated white boys are being disadvantaged due to a "culture wars" on "privilege". Picture: Alamy

Universities minister Michelle Donelan told the paper at the time: "It's really important that young people with the desire and ability go into higher education, including the very best universities, but that's only part of the hurdle. It's about making sure they complete those courses."

David Abulafia, a fellow of Gonville and Caius College, suggested this week that to combat the "disapproval" of white, malea, school names should be removed from the application.

Writing in The Spectator, Professor Abulafia said: "University admissions have become another site for culture wars in which "white", "male" and "privileged" are terms of disapproval, linked together to justify injustice."

Adding that by listing their private school, students are penalised "for their parent's choice".