Attaining privilege: the geography of admissions to elite universities

The report published today by the Sutton Trust starkly demonstrates how class privilege not the power of aspirations determines entrance to elite universities such as Oxford and Cambridge.  Here’s what the Trust’s press release has to say:

Four schools and one college sent more students to Oxbridge over three years than 2,000 schools and colleges across the UK, reveals the latest report on university admissions by individual schools by the Sutton Trust.

Between them, Westminster School, Eton College, Hills Road Sixth Form College, St Pauls School and St Pauls Girls School produced 946 Oxbridge entrants over the period 2007-09 – accounting for over one in 20 of all Oxbridge admissions. Meanwhile just under 2000 schools and colleges with less than one Oxbridge entrant a year produced a total of 927 Oxbridge entrants.

This report not only demonstrates that where a young person goes to school shapes their chances of attaining the high grades required for admission to highly selective universities, it also demonstrates that not all students from high achieving schools stand the same chance of gaining admission to such universities.  High grades in and of themselves are not enough – the subject choices at A levels (and equivalent exams) make a big difference.  But, clearly, so too does the social and cultural capital that is reproduced in those schools with a history of ensuring the progression of their students to elite universities.

It is worth taking a look at the summary table that accompanies the Sutton Trust’s report.  This looks further beyond the easy headlines of admission to Oxbridge colleges to examine patterns of progression to the top 30 highly selective universities in the country.  It makes fascinating, if infuriating and depressing reading.

The promotion of aspiration may be about many things, but it has clearly had virtually no impact in changing who gains admission to the most elite universities in England.

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