Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi has said that where state school applicants to Oxbridge have the same A-level grades as a privately-educated pupil they should gain the place.

His comments come following an interview with The Times on Saturday where he said Oxbridge places should be based “on merit” and that Britain should not “tilt the system” to ensure more places were given to state-educated pupils.

Stephen Toope, vice-chancellor at Cambridge University, said recently that private schools would need to accept they would get fewer pupils into Oxbridge in future.

Speaking to the BBC’s World At One, Mr Zahawi said: “What I would say is you don’t level up by pulling others down – the way you do this is to make sure the state system is every bit as good as the independent sector.

“If there are two children who’ve achieved the same results at A-level going for Oxbridge, one from state and one from independent sector, of course on merit the state school child deserves that place, why, because actually they’ve overcome much greater hurdles,” he said, adding: “I don’t believe in attacking one part of the system.”

Mr Zahawi was challenged over Institute for Fiscal Studies findings showing that there had been 15 years with no overall growth in school spending.

He described funding for schools from the Spending Review as a “good settlement” and said he had increased recovery investment to £4.9 billion.

Mr Zahawi said he kept a “very close eye” on resources, adding that “we are in a global battle against inflation”, with a spike in energy costs.

High-performing multi-academy trusts had delivered and continued to “feel confident” that they could deliver good outcomes for pupils, he said.

Government’s Sustainability and Climate Change Strategy
Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi (Victoria Jones/PA)

Mr Zahawi was asked about a report in The Observer where a leaked Government document described some school buildings as being a “risk to life” because of their level of disrepair.

“If there is risk to life we close down a school – there is no discussion about that whatsoever,” he said.

He said that nearly £11.3 billion had been invested in school infrastructure since 2015 with a building programme of 50 schools a year, although the leaked document showed officials in the Department for Education calling for this to increase to over 300.

“I always want to build more schools,” he said.

He added that last week, half a billion pounds funding for 1,400 schools to improve their buildings had been announced.

Oxbridge state admissions
A general view of Cambridge University buildings (Nicholas T Ansell/PA)

Mr Zahawi also told the programme that Dutch human resources company Randstad, which was behind the controversial tuition partners pillar of the national tutoring programme, which was criticised by schools for being “dysfunctional”, would be able to apply for a contract to quality-control the process next year, when schools will be delivered funding directly through schools-led tutoring.

“When we launched the programme with Randstad, we had two pillars, two ways that schools can use tutoring – one, the academic mentors, where Randstad will find an individual who can go into the school and do the tutoring, and the other one is tutoring partners where they pull off modules of tutoring for those children,” Mr Zahawi said.

“The schools themselves asked us to develop a third pillar which is school-led.

“When we launched with Randstad we had very high targets for the first two pillars, but schools said to us we want a school-led pillar because we think we can locate our own people to do this work.

“We backed them on this so if you look at the school-led that number has absolutely smashed the target.”

He said the contract for next year, which Randstad lost, had now changed, with the programme moving to a purely schools-led route.

“If Randstad feel they want to bid for the quality-control element of how we do this, then anyone is welcome,” he said.