How much does school sector matter?

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Anonymous #1
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I go to a private school and have done since Year 6 - but on a 100% bursary/academic scholarship the whole time. I come from a single parent, low-income family, live in one of the worst areas of the country for socioeconomic deprivation and progress to higher education (POLAR 1), and neither of my parents went to university (and nor did their parents, etc). My area has been specifically targeted for outreach from Cambridge. Basically, I hit almost every deprivation marker for a contextual offer apart from attending a state school, and it's going to be mentioned in my reference that I only attend my current school/sixth form because my place is fully funded by a donor.

I'm not really bothered about not receiving a contextual at a non-Oxbridge uni, because I have predicted grades of A*A*A* anyway, but I know Oxbridge is under pressure to (rightfully) accept more state school students. In particular, I'd like to apply to a more progressive college - possibly Wadham - and they have a strong commitment to increasing the ratio of state to private school students. I could of course always apply to a college that still has a higher private school to state ratio, but I would feel uncomfortable at a heavily upper-class, conservative college, because ultimately I still come from a working class background and am politically liberal.

So basically: does the type of school one attends really make that much of a difference when applying to Oxbridge? I can guess that if it's between me and an identical on-paper candidate who went to a state school, the place would probably go to them (which tbh I'd agree with because I know my school has provided me with more opportunities than the state comprehensive I would've otherwise attended), but is it anything more dramatic than that? Lately it's been making me really uncomfortable hearing my middle and upper class classmates complain about state school kids "taking all the Oxbridge places", and I know it's sour grapes, but I still want to know if there's a kernel of truth in the idea that state school kids have a large advantage nowadays - especially after a teacher told us that we had all shot ourselves in the foot by choosing to stay at our school for sixth form instead of going to a state sixth form.

Thanks in advance, and feel free to be blunt! I won't get offended haha, I personally think private school kids are still massively overrepresented at the 'golden triangle' unis.
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anonymous#192
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I attended a state school then a grammar school for sixth form (my friend attended a state then a private). From my understanding if you had 2 identical students who interviewed the same and who’s only difference was that one was from a state school and one was from a private school the state school student would be chosen. A big part of this in my opinion is to do with an attitude that is very common in private schools but much less common in state schools- the attitude being: I will do go university, I will get a good, high paying job, I will probably apply to oxbridge. In my grammar school I’d say that maybe 1/3 of students applied to oxbridge (and maybe 60% of those got in). In my friends private school it was more like 2/3 applied (though fewer of them got in, maybe 20%?). In comparison, at state schools my friend and I did our GCSEs at there were maybe 5 out of the 250 students who applied, so the proportion of those applying from state schools is MAJORLY lower than from private and grammar schools. This is partly because not everyone from state schools wants to go to uni or is academic enough (grammar schools seem to be a direct feed into uni, likely due to the students being so academic, and private schools also seem to take that same path, though I imagine this may be more due to pressure from parents to get into uni).

In the nicest way possible, seeing you talk about people at your school saying about ‘state school kids taking all the oxbridge places’ kind of makes my stomach turn. If I compare my experience at a state (or even grammar!) school to my friends experience at a private school there is virtually no comparison! My friend had her hand held (metaphorically) and was lead through everything that needed doing in order to have the highest chance of success in her application from a private school whereas my grammar schools opinion was very much ‘you’re smart enough to be here, you can figure it out yourself’ and state schools simply don’t have the resources to give that kind of help to individual students (or even groups).

I think another thing that people at your school (and private schools in general) will find that you maybe won’t personally experience (due to being on a scholarship) is that because they have enough money to pay for the schooling, oxbridge in a way see it as the parents having bought the grades? If that makes sense? Of course, students at private schools work for their grades but due to the MASSIVE amount of extra help that they get they are able to achieve SOOO MUCH higher than similarly capable state school kids, and for that reason oxbridge advantage state school applicants because they have had to work much harder for those same grades, opportunities, etc compared to a private school student in their same position. It’s a similar reason to why they advantage people who are the first in their family to attend uni - both of my parents went to uni so it was always an expectation that I would also attend uni, and I understand that this is a huge advantage for me over others who haven’t always had that engrained into their mind. Similarly, people who are from more financially disadvantaged backgrounds or who live in areas where education is a lower standard get advantages because they have to work twice as hard to reach the same level.

In terms of private vs grammar I think it’s also common to find more grammar school kids than private because oxbridge kind of see their grades as their own and as coming from their own hard work compared to private school kids’ grades which they sometimes view as the parents money buying the grades. I hope that makes sense? Another way of putting it might be that if you were to take those students out of private and grammar schools and put them in state schools, the private school kids wouldn’t do as well because a massive factor in their success is all the help they they get at a private school which isn’t available in state schools, and grammar school kids may do a little bit worse but overall would be the same because grammar schools don’t have many advantages to state schools (the only advantage I found was that I wasn’t bullied for being smart and wanting to do well, but financially and in terms of the time and resources available to help, my grammar school was no better off than my state school). Similarly, if you were to put state school kids into private schools they would all do much better from all the extra support.

I think I might have gone a bit off topic but overall the fact that you meet most of the deprivation markers will give you a huge advantage that will more than outweigh the disadvantage of having attended a private school
Last edited by anonymous#192; 2 months ago
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Peterhouse Admissions
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Hi there!

To answer the title of this post: a little, but it's only one of the contextual factors we consider within an application. The actual content of your application matters more than any of the contextual factors. By this I mean, how well you have done in your GCSEs, your predicted A Level grades, Admissions Assessment results etc. While it's absolutely true that we use personal, socioeconomic and educational factors to put these results in context, a strong performance from any background will always be viewed positively and a very weak performance will be viewed negatively.

In terms of your personal situation, we will see all of the other 'flags' you may have - coming from an area that ranks highly on the Index of Multiple Deprivation, has low progression to Higher Education - and that you're on a full bursary. This gives us a clearer picture of your situation and enables us to make a much more nuanced decision than the simple descriptor of ‘school sector’.

I'd also like to address a couple of other things mentioned in your post. Firstly, (and I know you get this!), state school kids aren't 'taking all the places'. Independently-educated students are still significantly overrepresented at top universities. Between 15 and 20% of A Level entrants come from independent schools (I really struggled to find recent, reliable data here) but students from independent schools make up around 30% of the Home (i.e. UK domiciled - this doesn't include students from abroad who attend UK private schools) students in the 2020 Cambridge cohort. There are many complex reasons for this, but the statistics are undeniable.

Secondly, there’s no such thing as picking between two identical applicants. This is something we get asked quite a lot, but because colleges are pretty small, we almost never get two applicants who are identical on paper. Each will have strengths and weaknesses in different areas. Even if there was, we would never make the decision solely on the basis of a single contextual factor.

Your teacher’s statement that you should have gone to a state school for sixth form is a real oversimplification. Independent schools usually have smaller class sizes and better facilities than state schools – if they didn’t, why would parents pay for them? We can also see the school students attended for their GCSEs (and indeed you’re meant to enter data in UCAS for where you’ve been at school since Year 7), and we do take that into account, especially when we’re looking at GCSE results, so it’s not as much of an ‘advantage’ as it can sometimes be made out to be. More to the point, your teacher is also feeding into the idea that kids from independent schools are in some way disadvantaged, when that’s really not the case.

Finally, there are lots of reasons why some colleges have more students from independent schools than others. It’s often to do with the demographics of who applies there, or who they can choose from the Pool, rather than a particular college preferring independent school students. The numbers also fluctuate a bit from year to year, so there’s not much to read into here.

I hope all of this helps. Some of this post is information for anyone else who may come across it and have similar misgivings about the importance of school sector, but I hope this reassures you too.
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