Revealed: The North West's Oxbridge feeder schools

And what the list tells us

New data obtained by the Mill shows which schools in the North West get the most offers from Oxford and Cambridge. The numbers suggest the country’s most famous universities are still recruiting from a fairly narrow group of schools and colleges in the region, despite some notable state school successes.

They were released under the Freedom of Information Act, and only include schools which have made at least one application to Oxford and Cambridge - known as Oxbridge - in the past few years. Experts say the data confirms that progress in widening access to highly selective universities is still “painfully slow”.

The data shows:

  • Private school Manchester Grammar got the most Oxbridge offers in the region between 2017 and 2019, with 85 students offered places. The next most successful were Manchester’s Loreto College with 69 offers, and Preston’s Runshaw College with 61 offers - both very large state-funded colleges.

  • 30 schools and colleges have amassed the vast majority - more than 60 per cent - of the region’s Oxbridge offers in the past few years. The group received 905 offers between them, averaging ten offers per year for each school. 

  • On the other hand, most of the region’s schools and colleges struggle to consistently get students into Oxbridge. 163 schools in the region have received less than one offer per year from Cambridge in the past few years, and 165 schools have got less than one a year from Oxford.

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The Oxbridge top 30

The following schools and colleges in the North West received the most Oxbridge offers between the 2017 and 2019 UCAS admissions cycles.

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There are nine private schools on the list of 30, and six grammar schools - most of whom have much smaller year groups than state colleges like Loreto and Runshaw. More than half the schools on the list are in Greater Manchester, and only one is in Liverpool. And towns like Blackburn, Rochdale, St Helen’s and Blackpool don’t have a single school among the 30, meaning that students from those places are statistically much less likely to end up at Oxford or Cambridge.

Professor Steven Jones, who researches higher education admissions at Manchester University, says the heavy clustering of offers is “depressingly familiar” and accords with the work he has done. He told The Mill:

I’ve been looking at these numbers for many years, and progress has been painfully slow. What's most worrying is the high proportion of A-level providers whose students receive very low numbers of Oxbridge offers each year. Entry to very elite universities is only one indicator among many, but it shouldn't be the case the doors are closed to so many young people because they're at the 'wrong' school or college.

Siobhan O’Connor, assistant principal at Holy Cross College in Bury, says that widening the group of students who can get an offer from Oxbridge and other highly selective universities is important for the region. “We’re never going to improve the country if we can’t get people out of these silos and into positions of power and influence,” she told The Mill. “That’s what it’s all about - widening the talent pool at the top, and giving children access to these opportunities.”

What is driving the numbers?

The list includes large state sixth form colleges and academies, which have broad intakes and whose success with Oxbridge is therefore notable, even if the percentages of their school leavers going to those universities is still relatively small. But on the whole, what emerges from the data is the dominance of private schools, grammar schools and schools in the region’s wealthiest areas.

Jones thinks this reflects a failure on the part of universities. “I think selective universities are generally poor at selection,” he told The Mill.

As a sector, we remain fixated with attainment, even though it's largely predicted by postcode, socio-economic status and social capital. Do elite universities really want young people from Knowsley? Universities know they'll suffer in terms of league table performance if they recruit students who are less likely to get the well paid job at the end, or might drop out if they don't fit in. So there are incentives to keep recruiting from the same old safe schools.

Of course, looking at Oxbridge entry is an extremely narrow measure, which can only really tell us about one thing: how good schools are at getting offers from highly selective universities. It doesn’t tell us about the quality of teaching, because schools have wildly different intakes, catchment areas and selection policies. “The striking thing about this [the top 30 list] is the fact that selection at 16 if not earlier appears to be involved,” says Chris Ray, a former headmaster of Manchester Grammar School.

Stephen Gorard, Professor of Education and Public Policy at Durham University, says he isn’t surprised by how many students go to Oxbridge from private schools and grammar schools, pointing out that Trafford in particular has the most socially segregated education system in England. He believes highly selective schools get too much credit for the the high attainment of their students. He told us:

What they are good at is selecting people at age 10 who are likely to do well at 16 or at 18. It doesn’t mean the schools are doing better with equivalent children. There’s no evidence that grammar school kids do better than they would have done if they had gone somewhere else. All we’re finding is that grammar schools are good at picking the people who will do well later. 

The value of preparation

The data shows plenty of schools and colleges in the region that regularly apply to Oxbridge without success. Turton School, a comprehensive in Bolton, has made six applications to Cambridge in the past three years, and received no offers. Crompton House CofE School, in Shaw and Crompton, has had no Cambridge offers despite making five applications. 

Those schools might just have been unlucky in the time period this data covers. But there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that there is a “knack” involved in getting students into highly selective universities, including training them on how to present themselves in their Personal Statement and how to come across well at interview. This can put schools with more resources or with a strong tradition of elite university entry at a further advantage. “In those schools, there is a well worn path and there will be coaching going on to help those students get into Oxbridge,” says Professor David Spendlove from Manchester University’s department of Education, who is also Executive Director of Teach First North West. “We are talking about something that is a particular niche.”

In light of that, we spoke to three teachers from schools in the list of 30, to ask them how they prepare students for their applications.

“Some of these kids are coming from households where the parents didn’t go to university, so the first thing we do is let them know about university, and what the universities are,” says Tony Ballantyne, who coordinates university applications at the Blue Coat CofE School in Oldham. The school is one of the few on the list of 30 which has a comprehensive intake, and isn’t based in an affluent area. Ballantyne says he tries to expose students to a “curiosity curriculum” to broaden their horizons, including getting them to do cryptic crosswords and to discuss films and plays. “We work hard at it, because we think these kids deserve the best opportunities,” he told The Mill.

Siobhan O’Connor, from Holy Cross College in Bury, says she focuses on training students’ critical thinking skills, and developing their “cultural capital” by encouraging them to take part in charity work. “We try to give them confidence,” she says. “We don’t want them to be daunted by having a northern accent when they go down for interview and are surrounded by private school students.” Around 70 per cent of her students have parents who didn’t go to university, but she says she would like many more of them to be reaching Oxbridge and similar universities. “Why aren’t we level with the public schools? That’s an attitude we have,” she told The Mill.

“What a lot of these students need is focused guidance,” says Zenos Christodoulides, who spends a couple of hours a week coaching the top performing students at King David High School in Manchester, which has an entirely Jewish intake. He allocates subject-specific mentors to groups of students, who help them prepare their applications and do mock tests and practice interviews. He even runs a medical debating society so students can get used to discussing topics within medicine that might come up at interview. “Some Oxbridge colleges have done a lot of outreach, and their representatives come and speak here. But if you just have those talks, that isn’t enough,” he says.

“Those schools are good at doing what they do, but it shouldn’t be at the expense of celebrating what other schools are doing,” says Spendlove. “There are schools where it’s a major success just getting their students into school every day. I have worked in elite schools, and I have worked in other schools too, so I know what schools are like. Everyone is working hard in the system.”

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