The education secretary has opposed the idea that elite universities such as Oxford and Cambridge should “tilt the system” to accept more students from state schools.
Nadhim Zahawi said admissions should be based on merit and the focus should be on providing more excellent schools.
His comments came after Cambridge University Vice-Chancellor Prof Stephen Toope told private schools he would accept fewer students coming to Oxbridge in the future.
Toope said the university would “welcome others” rather than say “we don’t want you” to private school students.
But Zahawi said the government’s job was to reduce the educational gap between the state and the private sector by raising the quality of state schools.
“I think it should be based on merit and evidence,” Zahawi, who was promoted to his role in Boris Johnson’s 2021 cabinet reshuffle, told the Times.
“It’s about delivering great results for all children, wherever they live, and especially for our most disadvantaged children. That’s why I bend the system to those areas where there are less good schools or good, excellent schools.
“You don’t create a system that people think is fair and equitable by somehow thinking there’s an easy fix. The best thing you can do is create schools in the state system that are just as good as independent schools. What we are.
“I need to continue my journey to deliver more excellent and high performing schools. That’s the right strategy. Not to mention really, let me just accept that we’re not going to produce excellent schools, so let me just take the system away from kids who performance.
Zahawi told the paper he wanted private schools to become more involved in the state sector, and he pointed to Eton College’s efforts to open three sixth grades in Dudley, Middlesbrough and Oldham to help pupils access Oxbridge.
“If we all put our tribalism aside and look at the evidence, we’re going to have great results for every kid,” he said. “If we do that, and I can show in the next two and a half years that I’ve done my job well, then we’ve really made a difference in the lives of children across the country.”
Toope told the Times earlier in May that his institution “should continue to make it very, very clear that we intend to reduce the number of people coming from independent schools to places like Oxford or Cambridge over time.
“Individual students who are talented, we would like to have them, but they will be competing against an ever-growing group as more students come from state schools who see a potential place for themselves in Cambridge or Oxford or other Russell Group Universities.”
Universities Minister Michelle Donelan said at the time: “It is very important that young people with the will and the ability go into higher education, including the very best universities, but that is only part of the hurdle. What matters is that they complete those courses.”