As we all know, there are three kinds of lies: Lies, damned lies, and statistics. Of these, the novelist to whom this quote is attributed would surely have recognised the last to be most worthy of reprimand. In matters of public policy, these vague half-truths can do far more harm than good, especially when manipulated by masters of spin.
Once abstracted from their original, and highly contingent, context – in most cases dull compilations of more or less estimated figures in multiple-tabbed Excel files, accompanied by exhaustive explanatory notes – they become ammunition, another screeching shell to be deployed on the battlefield of the daily press. Such is the nature of the recent triumphalism which greeted the University of Oxford’s announcement that 60% of its places have this year been offered to state-school students. At first glance, this figure is an achievement to be celebrated with an enthusiasm that this dismal year has forced us to summon for the most banal of non-horrific events. But on closer inspection the camouflage falls away and the mirage of good news dissipates.
Six in ten of Oxford’s undergraduate places may well have gone to state-school students but attending a state school is not a measure of disadvantage.
Government figures contained within a 2015 report into widening participation in higher education differentiate between students at ‘selective state schools’ and ‘other state’ schools. The most recent data used in this report shows that the proportion of students who progressed to the most selective universities from independent and selective state schools was almost on par in 2012/3, being 63% and 60% respectively. A gap that is currently narrowing is entirely unsurprising. Meanwhile, just 19% of ‘other state’ students entered the ‘most selective’ universities.
To its credit, Oxford recognises that distinguishing between private and state in its figures is an inadequate way to address the socially unrepresentative student mix, stating on its website: “Oxford publishes figures showing the proportion of state school students it accepts, but believes that school type is a crude and sometimes misleading indicator of disadvantage.”
This being said, its public-relations machine has wasted no time in crowing about the increase in state-school students being offered places, with newspapers like The Guardian gloating over the supposed progress.
The most economically and socially advantaged sections of society have long since succeeded in creating a two-tier system of state education which conveniently retains the same name. This allows them to proclaim their victory over what the more progressive among them see as the outmoded institution of private education, all the while obscuring the real reasons behind their children’s success at the expense of ‘other state’ kids and consequently doing nothing to increase social mobility.
However, even this quagmire of social mobility over which the chattering classes do much hand-wringing matters little in an epoch in which swathes of children turn up to ‘other state’ schools without seasonally-appropriate clothing, without having had breakfast because their parents simply cannot afford it, let alone the books, private tuition and extracurricular activities which could secure the path to top grades and elite institutions.
When food banks are a fact of life for children across these islands, which rung of the middle classes is ascendant in its domination of our ancient and venerable universities hardly matters. It does little to disguise the larger disgrace.
Image credit: Flickr/ Tejvan Pettinger