Joe Seddon, tech start-up founder and former state school student
When I set up a tech start-up to mentor students from low-income backgrounds into the UK’s top universities and careers, I knew what I didn’t want our supporting ideology to be: pitting private schools against state schools.
I believe a Britain divided into Bullingdon boys and impoverished state schoolers is far too simplistic an analysis of our country’s social mobility problem.
To unlock talent from all backgrounds, we need to focus on wealth and geography as well as the educational divide.
Where I grew up in Morley, west Yorkshire, the idea of going to Oxbridge was so unexpected that it bordered on fanciful.
Only 1 in 250 university applicants in Morley make it to Oxbridge, compared to 1 in 23 in places like Kingston.
However, after achieving 12 A*s in my GCSEs at my state school, I decided to give it a shot. In true Gen-Z fashion, I typed ‘how to get into Oxbridge’ into YouTube, leading me down a rabbit hole of videos from those who’d made it.
These were only snippets of what could be, but they provided the stimulus to apply.
The Oxbridge application process is shrouded in mystery and often touted as impossible to prepare for.
I hear from students all the time that the anxiety associated with this clandestine process harms their performance.
Indeed, I was so sure that I’d fudged my chances in my first interview that I was mercifully relaxed for the rest, ironically giving me the confidence that probably helped me secure my Oxford offer.
For some, this confidence is not so foreign. Students who grow up in the homes of Oxbridge alumni or attend schools overflowing with Oxbridge-bound students, receive an advantage that transcends education.
Dinner table conversations, supportive friendship groups, and copious extracurriculars add up to deliver immaculately polished students who feel like they’re riding the tailwind of destiny.
When I arrived at Oxford, believing myself to have fluked my way in and everyone else to be unassailable geniuses, I was shocked to discover that many students were fundamentally no more intelligent than many of the people I went to school with.
It was an ‘Emperor’s new clothes’ moment that dispelled my preconceived notion that social mobility is far too difficult a problem to solve. From this realisation, the idea for my start-up was born.
Talent is spread evenly, but opportunity is not. That insight doesn’t just apply to the types of schools students attend but to background and geography too.
If we focus too narrowly on the state-private divide, we fail to address the entire problem.
Whilst Oxbridge has made progress on increasing the number of state school students, progress to identify talent in the North and low-income backgrounds has been much slower.
Indeed, in my final year of university, only seven students from Morley applied to Oxford – all of them rejected.
Transparency, therefore, is key. What gets measured gets done, so universities should focus their reporting on socio-economic status and geography rather than just school type.
It is misleading for universities to claim progress if they’re merely swapping privately educated students for affluent state schoolers from London and the south east.
Universities should have their feet held to the fire on their ability to identify and admit talent from across the UK.
This nuance doesn’t mean private schools should be let off the hook. Students at fee-paying St Paul’s with 3 A*s at A-Level shouldn’t be surprised that they’re “losing out” to state school students with “only” 3 As when those students have achieved those grades without expensive private education and personal tutors.
Universities have begun to wake up to the fact that grades should be seen in their full social context to be a reliable indicator of talent.
Whilst much of the debate has focused on what goes on in schools, technology holds the key to levelling up university admissions.
“Private schools would do well not to rush to judgement”
The UK’s social mobility problem will not be solved by summer schools, bussing professors across the country, or closing every private school in the land.
It will be solved by using technology to identify talented students early and then providing them with continual support along their journey.
With UK teenagers spending more time online than ever before, my tech start-up, Zero Gravity, ensures students from low-income backgrounds can benefit from this technological revolution.
Ultimately, competition for university places means that, in the short term, a re-weighting of university admissions will create winners and losers.
However, behind the shrieks of horror over private schools’ loss of control over Oxbridge admissions is a more unifying story.
In a report for The Sutton Trust by Bolton Consulting Group, the authors estimate that weakening the UK’s link between background and achievement would contribute £140bn to GDP by 2050.
Levelling up isn’t just about making things fairer – it’s about unlocking the collective potential of the country. When talent wins, everyone wins.
Private schools would do well to appreciate that before rushing to judgement about changes in the university admissions landscape.
Joe Seddon is the founder and chief executive of Zero Gravity, a platform that uses tech to drive the levelling up agenda by aiding young people from low-income backgrounds get into top universities and careers. You can check out his work here zerogravity.co.uk.