Why we want our pupils to think beyond Oxbridge

As the Head of a boarding school with a long history and a number of international schools within the group, it is maybe not surprising that wherever I go in the world I meet alumni – sometimes on purpose, but more often than not, entirely by chance. 
Except, maybe it’s not that surprising… 
In a recent assembly, having just come back from an international trip, I commented that I love the fact that Malvernians seem to be the type of people who have the inner confidence that they can ‘go anywhere, do anything’. One of the central tenets to our purpose is to instil within our pupils the skills and the confidence to make a positive impact on the world they go out into, so maybe we are achieving this, or maybe this is just what British independent education has been doing for centuries. 
A recent alumni has just qualified as a BA pilot, making six pilots in total within our database (not including those within the Armed Forces). This particular young man is a great example (and indeed he has been an excellent role model whilst at school and in the few years in-between) of somebody who has aimed high – literally – but determinedly followed his own path rather than the more traditional route of elite university followed by a highly paid job in professional services. 
Reading the histories of my school, the number of references and the perceived success of the school, seems to be far too closely linked to just two universities. Even in the days when Oxbridge appeared to be the preserve of public school educated pupils, it was always a small minority of pupils who actually went on to these institutions. The vast majority of pupils did not go to Oxbridge and, of those that I have met, they seem to have unfailingly led extremely successful and fulfilling lives. 
Therefore, whilst the media have got excited about the varying proportions of backgrounds accessing these specific universities, I am also excited by the much greater prominence of the other options that are grabbing our pupils’ attentions. The UK, and indeed the world, has many brilliant further education options, and it is about time that we began to value them for what they offer our young people. I am increasingly seeing teenagers much more inclined to look beyond what has traditionally been seen as the epitome of academic excellence, willing and able to seek out and go after the things that matter to them. The next generation is extremely discerning about picking the right university for them: the right subject, a specific style of teaching, a campus or institution that values well-being; somewhere that provides relevant work experience or will open doors into industry, or into another region of the world. Or even not to go to university at all.
So whilst I do have to admit to being extremely proud of being able to list the offers that our pupils have achieved this year, covering all of the UK’s G5, I am possibly even more proud of those pupils who are going slightly off the usual track with offers from elite universities in Europe and the US, another two starting pilot training, and others going onto exciting degree apprenticeships across cyber-security, finance and the arts, as well as several going into family businesses in manufacturing and agricultural industries.
There is no doubt that to secure a place at an elite UK university is a huge achievement and the process to do so remains highly competitive. For certain young people this is exactly the right path, but for others, and certainly many who are perfectly capable of securing a place, it is not where they would choose to be or, quite honestly, where they would thrive. It’s why, for a long time now, I have believed good schools do all they can to support and encourage a wide variety of routes to success. They know their pupils well so that the support is there to make the most of their hard work and give them options. 
Nowhere is this more clearly embodied than in pupils like Shuaichu Pan. Academically extremely gifted and international Olympiad gold medalist in a range of subjects, Shuaichu has been an active member of the Malvern College community, president of a number of our super-curriculum clubs and societies, passionate about the performing arts and a student mentor to younger pupils. This broad range of experiences has helped him to secure a slew of offers from world leading institutions in the UK and overseas, including Oxford.   
It’s important to look beyond the rankings when it comes to the top universities to find the right fit. Within the UK, there are 22 world-leading, research-led universities in the Russell Group alone, with institutions including King’s College, Imperial, Durham and Edinburgh, offering outstanding prospects for undergraduates within their unique specialisms.  
But why not stop there.  
Beyond that, we have the US, where we have already seen an increase in applications from Malvern pupils – so much so that we now have a member of staff dedicated to supporting pupils through the American application process (and one for Europe). While Oxbridge understandably has a detailed focus on academic rigour, institutions like Yale, Harvard and Princeton and other elite universities in the US, combine this with a much greater value apportioned to wider skills and service, supporting excellence with enhanced support through scholarships. 
We also encourage our pupils to explore opportunities outside of university. From prestigious graduate programmes in the financial sector to aviation, there are a myriad of options available for pupils to enter straight into the world of work. Most recently, Brad Jones, who left Malvern to attend Flight School in 2021 and is now a 1st Officer for British Airways. Now a role model himself, Brad has mentored two current pupils using his real-world experience to encourage them to see beyond red brick universities. 
I am shortly to attend my 30 years since matriculation at a Cambridge College, and am greatly looking forward to re-engaging with some old friends. Many are extremely successful and decidedly eminent in their respective fields. However, I am not sure how many of us have really ‘gone anywhere, done anything’ in the way that I am seeing the opportunities for our young people of today. 
When we tell young people the sky’s the limit we really need to mean it and as schools we can prove that by broadening our own measures of success – Oxbridge and other similar institutions are no doubt excellent, but too much focus on them can lead to us undervaluing other options. 
Keith Metcalfe – The Headmaster