The latest policy innovation is to create league tables to show how many students from state schools win places at Oxford or Cambridge.
The idea behind the table is to bring schools to account and make them more responsible for the social mobility of their students, getting them into Oxbridge and moving them up the social ladder. But the league-table will not measure social mobility in any meaningful way and the manner of its framing shows once again how narrow a concept of educational success is being promoted by this government.
Much is made of the fact that private schools get the lion’s share of entrants to Oxbridge and in speeches Gove has expressed bewilderment that just 40 students of the 80,000 on free schools meals made it to Oxford or Cambridge, fewer than most private schools of any size. But wondering why a private school such as Eton or Westminster is so efficient at getting its pupils into Oxbridge is a bit like wondering why a Porcelain factory is so good at creating ornamental figurines. The fact is that the private schools are geared up to produce Oxbridge material, and most importantly the parents expect their offspring to make it into these universities. In contrast, most state schools do not have parents and children who expect to attend Oxbridge, they probably have a whole different set of priorities. The issue here is that entrance to a particular university is not merely a matter of academic achievement, most of the factors are social and cultural in nature.
Judging the quality of state education by this narrowest of measures is myopic. Firstly it ignores those students who may make it to other universities, some of which, for many subjects are equally good if not better than the big two. Although plans to measure entrance into the 20 Russell group universities are also being mooted, even this broader measure is a distortion as it ignores the impact on social mobility which results from a student from a poor background attending *any* university. It as if ministers, having been educated at Oxford themselves (for even within the top two, Oxford will look down on Cambridge as a poor relative), can only define success in terms of attendance at that university. This is snobbishness elevated to the status of policy and reveals them as brutish, ignorant philistines lacking the imagination or insight to conceive of success in anything other than the straitjacket of their own limited life experience.
Gove made much as he took office, of his approach of letting teachers get on with teaching. Whilst he may not have put forward policies which direct classroom practice, the imposition of league-tables on schools could be an even more invidious means of political tinkering with state education. Some schools will ignore the tables as an irrelevance, but some schools may try and compete in that league, and this will distort A level education as schools pour resources into those students who they believe can make it to the hallowed halls, to the detriment of the rest. Perhaps some figures will put this into perspective. There are about 24,000 Oxbridge Places going every year. There are around 3400 state secondary schools, not all of which have a sixth form. So schools are competing for very few possible places. So a school can be excellent at creating the conditions of social mobility for its students. Say working in an inner city situation and getting students to take A levels, move on to university places or get jobs. All of this will be ignored by this league table measure which is simplistic, divisive and once again reveals the paucity of coalition education policy.
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