State schools and the quiet revolution at Oxbridge

New Labour’s education reforms mean the state system is now competing at the top academic level again—as Oxford and Cambridge admissions data shows

July 28, 2021
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Photo: robertharding / Alamy Stock Photo

Because it is happening quietly, it is no less revolutionary. The rapid rise of state schools in admissions to Oxford and Cambridge is prising these great universities out of the grip of Eton and the public schools. In due course this may have radical social and political consequences.

Amid a second summer of cancelled exams, university admissions might seem like a lottery—but look more closely and you can see patterns emerging. Cambridge last year awarded 70 per cent of its home undergraduate places to state school applicants, Oxford 68 per cent. For Oxford, this was a rise from 62 per cent in just one year. Go back 20 years and the state/private proportions were roughly half and half. Back in the 1980s, when I was at Oxford and the place felt like one huge public school to which a few others of us had been smuggled in by mistake, it was well over half from fee-paying schools, mostly the historic elite public schools.  

There was nothing inevitable about the public school dominance of Oxbridge over the last generation. As I describe in my profile of Boris Johnson, “The Prime Etonian,” in the current issue of Prospect, this public school ascendancy was restored from the 1970s, after decades of decline, because of the double whammy of the abolition of the state grammar schools and the reinvention of the public schools as “meritocratic” institutions delivering top exam results in return for their ever higher fees. Eton now charges £48,501 a year.

In the space of barely a decade under the modernising Eric Anderson who died last year, and was headmaster to both Johnson and Cameron, Eton reformed from a comprehensive into a grammar school, in terms of admissions requirements, curriculum and results. The change in social intake was negligible, however, because its feeder prep schools, like Boris Johnson’s Ashdown House in Sussex, raised their game to match. A new English form of meritocratic-plutocracy reigned.

Meanwhile, the abolition of the state grammar schools largely eliminated the exam factories enabling non-privileged children to compete at the highest level. To escape abolition, many of these schools went wholly private, particularly those which were mixed (part-free, part fee-paying) “direct grant” institutions under a post-war settlement forged by both Labour and Tory governments. This huge upheaval was largely the work of Tony Crosland and Shirley Williams, the two privately-educated Labour education secretaries. The state-to-private transition embraced almost all of the most prestigious and historic grammar schools, including Manchester, Newcastle, Leeds and Bristol grammar schools, and a whole set of highly academic day schools in London.

One can debate the educational and social effects of the decision to make Labour education policy in the 1960s and 1970s an assault on grammar schools, rather than building up a strong pillar of technical-vocational state schools as in Germany and the Netherlands, which kept and progressively expanded their grammar schools as part of the mix. However, the political consequences are only now being fully felt.

Whereas the Tories are led and largely staffed in parliament by the meritocratic-plutocracy, Labour has little to match beyond the very last of the grammar school generation whose luminaries were Harold Wilson, Roy Jenkins and Denis Healey. Enter Keir Starmer, whose Reigate Grammar School went from direct-grant to private, in the process just described, while he was there.

What of Labour’s only two leaders to have led the country in the last 40 years? Tony Blair, a classic public school rebel, went to Fettes (“Scotland’s Eton”) where his headmaster was, wait for it, Eric Anderson pre-transition to Eton. Gordon Brown was product of a grammar school stream at Kirkcaldy High School before going to Edinburgh at the precocious age of 16. I rest my case, m’lud.

Why is the quiet revolution taking place, ironically under an Eton-led Tory government? Partly because, thanks to the long-run impact of New Labour’s education reforms, the state system is once again competing at the top academic level. A string of new state academies set up in the 2000s are taking on Eton and Westminster with vim. Just three east London academies—Brampton Manor Academy in East Ham, the London Academy of Excellence in Stratford, and Mossbourne Academy in Hackney—last year sent 100 a year to Oxbridge and hundreds more to other Russell Group universities.

Equally significant is the “pull” factor of a new generation of Oxbridge admissions tutors and heads of college who positively want to recruit a fairer social representation. Will Hutton, Alan Rusbridger and Helena Kennedy—among the principals of Oxford colleges in the last decade—have been harbingers of this new egalitarian-meritocracy. Several Oxbridge colleges now recruit more than 80 per cent from state schools, suggesting that the revolution has further to go.

Maybe, just maybe, this heralds a brighter future for England’s non-Tory forces in the next generation. When I spoke at Cambridge University Labour Cub just before the first lockdown, both the chair and the secretary hailed from Mossbourne Academy. Both wanted to become Labour MPs. 

But don’t shed too many crocodile tears for those poor benighted public schoolboys and girls. When Boris went up to Balliol College in 1983, he joined more than 150 Etonians at Oxford. The number is still over 100. Like all English revolutions, though much changes, much abides.