Breaking Down Barriers to Oxbridge: Can Secondary Teachers Inspire Their Pupils?


The universities of Oxford and Cambridge may be the most celebrated and prestigious in the UK, but new research suggests that their intake is less than representative of the country as a whole. Figures released by the Sutton Trust charity show that just eight leading schools sent more students to Oxbridge between 2015 and 2017 than 2,900 other schools put together.

The imbalance in admissions is stark: while just 7% of pupils attend private schools, they take up 42% of Oxbridge places. Westminster School in London saw an average of 70-80 students per year offered places at Oxbridge; meanwhile, entire local authorities, such as Salford and Portsmouth, had no students accepted into Oxford or Cambridge in the three years studied.

Attainment vs aspiration?

Is there an issue of attainment? There doesn’t seem to be. UCAS figures showed that more than 5,000 students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds achieved two A*s and an A grade over the study, yet only 220 got a place at Oxford.

There certainly seems to be a divide in aspiration. The proportion of state school pupils applying for Oxbridge is half that of private schools, even among students with the same ability levels and predicted grades. But what’s behind this? In many independent schools, specialist support can be provided to pupils through mentoring, university preparation classes, mock interviews or one-to-one support from a university adviser – options that just aren’t available to many state schools, for reasons of cost or student volumes. As a result, state school pupils are not pushed to apply for top universities, even when they have the ability to meet the entrance criteria.

College students

What can we do?

Is there anything that we can do as teachers to bridge the gap for our students? It might seem like a losing battle, encouraging pupils to aim for the top when the competition has such a huge head start, but students need to know that there are no limits on what they can aim for. A classroom teacher who drives their students to achieve their best and pushes them to aim high can make all the difference when it comes to university applications. You may not be able to provide all the bells and whistles that the most exclusive independent schools can, but you can make a difference to the mentality of your students. Let them know what options they have, let them know what they need to do to get there, and don’t let them believe that there’s anything stopping them.

At Twinkl, we can help you support your students towards an aspirational future with our fantastic resources for higher-ability pupils. Whether you’re pushing an English student from that level 6 or 7 towards an 8 or a 9 with our differentiated lesson packs, full of activities to stretch and challenge the most able, or encouraging your science pupils to effectively direct their revision for Higher exam papers with our fantastic revision mats, we can help you push your students to achieve their very best.

By Dan Stringer.

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