Nadhim Zahawi: Oxbridge shouldn’t ‘tilt the system’ to favour state schools

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Nadhim Zahawi, the Education Secretary chats to children at a primary school - Aaron Chown/PA Wire
Nadhim Zahawi, the Education Secretary chats to children at a primary school - Aaron Chown/PA Wire

Britain should be “proud” of its private schools and not “tilt the system” to ensure more state pupils get into Oxbridge, the Education Secretary has said.

Nadhim Zahawi said merit should be the primary concern when deciding on admissions, and the key to ensuring better outcomes for disadvantaged children is raising the quality of state schools.

Mr Zahawi’s comments come after Professor Stephen Toope, the vice-chancellor of Cambridge University, said the “premium” afforded to private school pupils is likely to reduce over time.

In an interview with The Times, Mr Zahawi said: “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.”

He added that setting aside “tribalism” is crucial if children across the country are to succeed.

Private schools educate around seven per cent of children. The proportion for sixth formers is believed to be about 12 per cent.

Earlier this month, Professor Toope said the increased intake of state school children at Cambridge – rising from 68.7 per cent in 2019 to 72 per cent last year – was “real progress”.

The Harvard graduate, who leaves his post this September, told The Times: “I would say we 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.

“We’re doing it by welcoming others, not by telling those people we don’t want you. 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.”

Robert Halfon, the Conservative chair of the Education Select Committee, has claimed the status quo is “not a level playing field” and more change is needed to ensure a “meritocracy”.

However, private school leaders have criticised pitching independent institutions against their state counterparts. They argue that private schools have helped to set up state schools and that many state school pupils were from wealthy backgrounds.

Barnaby Lenon, chairman of the Independent Schools Council, said contextual admissions are “sensible” but it is wrong for the debate to descend into a face-off between private and state schools.

He said private schools supported their state counterparts and were responsible for helping top universities to select from a broader field.

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