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Private schools accused of using governors to get upper hand on Oxbridge admissions

 Eton College, which charges £42,500-a-year, has currently has four Oxbridge governors
 Eton College, which charges £42,500-a-year, has currently has four Oxbridge governors

Almost a third of the country’s leading public schools have at least one Oxbridge governor, as experts warn that students may be getting an upper hand on admissions to the two top universities.  

Of the 263 English schools which belong to the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC), which represents the most elite fee-paying institutions, 81 (31 per cent) boast a governor who is a senior academic at Oxford or Cambridge. 

 This includes the heads of seven Oxbridge Colleges, a Cambridge pro-Vice Chancellor and over 100 other fellows, admissions tutors and faculty professors from the two universities, a Daily Telegraph survey has found.   

 Oxford and Cambridge are under pressure to accept more pupils from state schools. But earlier this year a study by the Sutton Trust, a social mobility charity, found that pupils from private schools in England are seven times more likely to attend Oxbridge than their peers at comprehensives. 

Education chiefs have raised concerns about the high proportion of private schools with Oxbridge governors, arguing that it could lead to pupils benefiting from their in depth knowledge of the admissions system.

 Hannah Stolton, chief executive of Governors for Schools, a charity which connects state schools with governors, said:  “While the country’s leading private schools can demand Oxbridge employees on their governing boards, many state schools struggle to simply fill vacancies.  

“All those who volunteer to support schools should be applauded, yet Oxbridge connections could have more impact in the state sector where admissions are proportionally lower.”  

Mary Curnock-Cook, the former head of the university admissions service Ucas, said the figures on Oxbridge governors “feels quite incongruent” to the push by Oxbridge to admit more pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. 

Up until 2014, Oxford University either selected or approved academics to serve as nominated governors for schools 

  Lord Lucas, a hereditary peer and editor-in-chief of the Good Schools Guide, said that one can “entirely understand” why private schools would want someone from Oxbridge on their governors.  

“It is important for independent schools to know how Oxbridge works, because part of their offering to parents that they are good at getting the best students in,” he said.  

“A lot of these independent schools have old associations with Oxbridge. But it is very important to pick up on old unquestioned habits and say ‘is this right?’”  

Some of the most oldest schools’ statutes require governors who are academic staff of Oxford and Cambridge, or are chosen by senior figures at the universities. Up until 2014, Oxford University either selected or approved academics to serve as nominated governors for schools.

 Eton College, which charges £42,500-a-year, has currently has four Oxbridge governors. Its statutes dictate that governors must include a current or former fellow or a faculty member of an Oxford and a Cambridge college, plus the provost of King’s College, Cambridge.  

Until 2016, the £41,775-a-year Harrow School had to appoint at least two Oxbridge academics, and currently lists a Cambridge professor of the history of medieval art, an Oxford associate professor of classics and an Oxford music director as governors.

 Westminster School, which costs £41,600-a-year, automatically appoints the dean of Christ Church, Oxford and the master of Trinity College, Cambridge, to its governing body, while the £41,700-a-year Winchester College appoints the warden of New College, Oxford.

Sir Peter Lampl, founder of the Sutton Trust: “Part of the problem is that independent schools are much better equipped to navigate the complex entry procedures.  Having an Oxbridge don as a governor helps in this regard.

 “However, the real issue is that independent schools devote significant effort to getting students into Oxbridge whereas comprehensives don’t have the resources.”  

Angela Rayner, the Shadow Education Secretary, said that private school governors  recruiting Oxbridge admissions tutors is an example of "how the establishment works to entrench inequality and ensure a privileged few benefit at the expense of working class students”. 

 Oxford and Cambridge said that any academics who sit on school governing bodies do so in a “personal capacity”, adding that there are rules in place to prevent any conflict of interest when it comes to pupil admissions from schools they are associated with.   

Shaun Fenton, chair of HMC, said it is “nonsense” and “disrespectful” to governors to suggest any malpractice.  “This statistic reveals only that HMC schools have impressive boards of governors who understand education,” he said. 

“State schools also have Oxbridge staff on their boards, as well as staff from independent schools. We all learn from each other and that is how it should be.”

Additional reporting: Max Ingleby, Imogen Horton, William McGee, Xavier Fernando, Joseph Heritage, Kennedy Manamella-Chwalek, Sophie Foster and Carlie Porterfield.