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Zahawi says Britain should be 'very proud' of its private schools

Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi says Britain should be ‘very proud’ of its private schools and not ’tilt the system’ to ensure more state school pupils get into Oxbridge

  • Nadhim Zahawi said the system should not be titled against private school pupils
  • He insisted the onus is on the Government to close gap between private schools and state schools and to ensure the latter get more students places at Oxbridge
  • It comes after Cambridge VC warned private school pupils will get fewer places

Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi has pushed back against the idea elite universities like Oxford and Cambridge should ’tilt the system’ to accept more pupils from state schools.

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.

‘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.

‘The thing to do is deliver great outcomes for all children, wherever they live, and especially our most disadvantaged children.

Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi has pushed back against the idea elite universities like Oxford and Cambridge should ’tilt the system’ to accept more pupils from state schools

‘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.’

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.

The vice-chancellor of Cambridge has warned private school pupils that they will lose out on Oxbridge places to state school peers in a bid to boost diversity. Pictured: Oxford University 

‘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.’

State school pupils made up 72 per cent of Cambridge’s intake in September last year, up from 70.6 per cent in 2020 and 68.7 per cent in 2019, after almost 45 per cent of all A-level exams were awarded an A* or A grade. 

Eton College ‘lost HALF its Oxbridge offers as top universities try to boost intake from state schools’

In February last year, it was reported that Oxford and Cambridge universities had halved the number of offers given to Eton College pupils.

The universities offered just 48 places to pupils at the prestigious public school this year, compared to 99 in 2014.

A record high proportion of state school students started courses at the University of Cambridge.

Writing in a letter to parents, the school’s deputy head Tom Hawkins tried to appease disappointed families.

He said: ‘Each year we see very strong Etonian applicants disappointed, and unfortunately there have been more boys in this position this year.’

Cambridge set a benchmark of 76 per cent state school intake for 2020, while Oxford’s was 75.5 per cent – compared with its actual state school intake of just under 70 per cent. 

Private schools educate just 7 per cent of children, with the proportion for sixth-formers believed to be about 12 per cent. 

Calling the state school intake rise ‘real progress’, Prof 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.’

His comments were met with scepticism by academic experts who said selective admissions based on background over ability could exclude disadvantaged pupils.

Independent Schools Council chairman Barnaby Lenon said: ‘School type is not of itself a proxy for background or an indicator of socio-economic advantage or disadvantage.

‘Many pupils in state schools come from high-income homes and many pupils attending independent schools receive means-tested bursaries – contextual admissions are only a sensible part of the selection process if they are applied properly.

‘It is a shame that this debate is so often presented as independent vs state. Independent schools actively support state school Oxbridge applicants through partnership projects and our schools are responsible for having set-up some highly successful state schools in terms of Oxbridge success, including the London Academy of Excellence and Harris Westminster.’

He added: ‘Taxpayers expect that Oxford and Cambridge would select students based on their academic potential. How they do that is up to them.

Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge, Prof Stephen Toope, faced accusations of ‘social engineering’ for saying enrolling more grammar school pupils would not help to widen ‘participation goals’

‘A proportion of the best students in the UK go to independent schools, very often on large bursaries.

‘A large proportion of those state school pupils at Oxford and Cambridge come from grammar schools or state schools in prosperous areas where there is selection by house price.

‘Many come from wealthy homes overseas, but the overseas figures are rarely mentioned.

‘Independent schools continue to get their best pupils into Oxford and Cambridge in large numbers because these are pupils with great academic potential. Their degree results at Oxford and Cambridge bear this out.’

Dr Mark Fenton, chief executive of the Grammar School Heads Association, said: ‘Professor Toope should also be aware that in counties with a wholly selective system, virtually all the most academic students attend selective schools regardless of social background.

‘If Cambridge was to reduce admissions from grammar schools, this would be manifestly unfair on large swathes of the country.’

Pictured: Cambridge professor David Abulafia has suggested that to combat the ‘disapproval’ of white, male candidates, school names should be removed from their Oxbridge applications 

Yesterday, a Cambridge academic suggested that privately educated white boys are being disadvantaged in the Oxbridge university admissions process due to ‘culture wars’ over ‘privilege’.

David Abulafia, a fellow of Gonville and Caius College, has suggested that to combat the ‘disapproval’ of white, male candidates, school names should be removed from the application.

He said that by listing their private school, students are penalised ‘for their parent’s choice’ — and ‘betrays’ principles on which Cambridge has ‘flourished’.

The emeritus professor of Mediterranean history at the University of Cambridge said that between 2014 and 2021, Eton’s admissions to Oxbridge halved, puzzling its leaders.

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.’

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