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  • Sue Hough and Jo Kennedy

Completing the square | 10 May 2022

Updated: Oct 11, 2022

(a talk by Rachel Stenhouse)

I found it interesting to learn how students in a private school are prepared for Oxford and Cambridge entrance processes. Rachel’s research suggested that the preparation process was positively enhanced by the cultural capital of the teachers leading the sessions – several of whom had themselves succeeded in those entrance procedures and studied for their degrees in those two universities. In some senses, this is to be expected. Students will undoubtedly be well prepared for assessment processes where their teachers have detailed knowledge and experience of these processes and where time is given to assessment preparation of this kind. Still, it made me wonder: What does preparation for entrance to elite universities look like in state school sixth forms? Can state school teachers be supported by private school teachers to replicate their entrance preparation processes? How much does the lived experience of a teacher who went to such universities impact on the quality of such preparation? How much does the impact of private schooling throughout a person’s life also impact positively on preparation for gaining entrance?

In order to gain a place in a private school, students will be successful in that school’s entrance examinations. They arrive at that school as part of a cohort of students who too have been successful. They are to some extent already part of an elite society with which comes a confidence and sense of expectation unlikely to be shared by their state school counterparts. Their parents can afford to pay for their schooling and we assume can afford to pay for private tuition, if additional support is required. The school will have a long record of students who gained places at elite universities. This record and the individual success stories can be used to engender expectation, aspiration and inspiration for future cohorts of students.

Rachel’s talk heightened my awareness that this is indeed not a level playing field. Even if and where efforts may be made to replicate the sessions provided in a private school to neighbouring state schools/colleges, the impact of other factors described above cannot be replicated. This calls into question the importance of looking at the entrance success criteria. Presumably elite universities are aware of the disparity with regard to different school experiences and different preparation for their entrance processes. So, to what extent do they factor this into their selection process? Do they, for example, place more weight on potential rather than actual performance in the interview process? How much information do they provide to all schools and colleges about what candidates should expect from the selection process? (In the same way that exam boards provide a syllabus and many past papers.)

It is easy to see where the self-perpetuating nature of this system arises. Students from privileged backgrounds gain confidence from passing an examination, which then places them in a learning environment where they are surrounded by tradition and expectation and collaboration and competition with other students, who themselves have the confidence of knowing that they too were successful in the examination. This raises their status. Within their school, these students are taught by a higher proportion of teachers, themselves graduates of elite universities, and they taught directly to develop the skills and experiences which will be tested in the selection process to the same elite universities. This raises their status and so it goes on. On the other hand, students from a state school background, who may not have been given the same sort of preparation for the selection process but who do gain entrance to elite universities are perhaps to be admired even more.

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