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The Oxbridge divide

In the past couple of weeks the issue of privilege and the Oxbridge divide has been prominent on social media. The argument has essentially been that Oxbridge caters most to the privileged and monied, and further, excludes black students in particular. David Lammy extracted some data from Oxford which he believes shows Oxford is not doing well enough with respect to offering access to bright black and underprivileged students. I am not sure if he is suggesting Oxford is institutionally racist but the inference that Oxford actively excludes black and disadvantaged students is easy to draw from his comments on the matter. The statistics are quite complex and to me don't actually suggest Oxford is doing too badly, but this thread of tweets addresses the specifics very well;

To be frank, I am not entirely sure where to start with this discussion because those progressing the arguments against elite universities appear to misunderstand half of what is going on, or that their often misguided protestations are contributing to the problem. When I encounter people who complain of Oxbridge elitism, it often turns out that they hadn't actually applied. When asked why, the reply usually includes reference to not having had someone to push or encourage them to.

Is it true that private schools are more likely to provide students to Oxbridge? It would seem so, but just under 60% of Oxford's 2016 intake was from state schools. Is it less likely that students from deprived backgrounds will apply to Oxford, or get the grades sufficiently good enough to do so? Probably, yes. Does Oxbridge have a far more stringent selection process, of which A Level results are only a part? Certainly. Someone once said to me that a college at Oxford will select people who it will find stimulating and interesting to teach - that is the point of these academic institutions which thrive on the intellects of their students. They simply don't exclude such intellects on the basis of their social status or colour. Our society makes all university access difficult but, as with everything, wealthier people find it easier to overcome hurdles and few can deny that. But Oxford receives students and maintains its academic standards; lots of bright, middle class or wealthy students are refused entry every year too.

The problems that David Lammy wishes to address start long before the selection process begins. He is tilting at windmills. Oxford should not be his target.

I wrote about my early life and education in my book ("Noisy at the wrong times" - Two Roads/Hodder, if you are interested) and nobody can read it and suggest that I came from privilege. I went to a school that simply set out, actively, to prove that if you give underprivileged kids the same educational opportunities as wealthier kids, you would see some remarkable results. The school was Woolverstone Hall and inner city London boys were its primary intake; Woolverstone was dubbed the 'poor man's Eton'. The school was born of a debate in the fifties, so this is not a new phenomenon, but Woolverstone's ethos was both educational rigour that always challenged us, alongside a powerful culture of self-belief. Many would argue that this is how many state schools today would claim they approach education but I might argue about the educational challenge and rigour. I should also add that I didn't go to university at all; I was a shit and silly, and thought I didn't need to. Eventually, I sorted myself out a bit and, as if to demonstrate the superficiality and presumption of this whole debate, ended up the General Director of an opera festival. That was my school's influence eventually finding a willing home in my head. My daughter went to Oxford though, so I suppose she will feature in the stats as a privileged student, daughter of a chief executive etc. yet she comes directly from a working class, immigrant family and she went to state school. But I digress.

I have recently been spending quite a bit of time mentoring A'Level students in an inner city London school. They happen to be mostly of Afro Caribbean, African or Asian backgrounds, both young men and women, but their outlook is pretty common to many working class students. We talk a great deal about aspiration and self-belief and I am as often surprised by their narratives as I am bewildered and depressed. We also spend a lot of time discussing the challenges they believe they face in achieving their further education goals and thence their careers, and they are fairly unequivocal in recognising the challenges. Some aren't confident they will get the grades they require, even though they appear to be doing well. It becomes very interesting to discuss their approach to self-belief and what that actually means; they all, to one degree or another, consider themselves to have self-belief, but it is often framed and restricted quite radically to a point where they begin to wonder if they should bother much at all. They are extremely wary of what they believe to be platitudinous 'teacher speak' about having confidence in themselves or being told "you can achieve whatever you want". They don't always believe it, or trust the concept. If one delves deeper, their responses to the question of what self-belief actually means brings a jolt.

Their aspirations are the starting point and these are often close to home, the near horizon, surprisingly conservative. The conversation enlivens when I say that self-belief to me is not just being cocky or confident that I can do identifiable, moderately achievable things, but it is imagining doing things I had never - would ever - conceive as being possible at all, but more importantly, achieving those things that others tell me are not within my reach. One student who wants to be a lawyer said that he was prepared to work hard but knew there were lots of other people doing the same and he felt he stood little chance of getting there. He didn't entirely believe that his talent or endeavour was enough; "kids from private schools,"he said, "get a better education." This cynicism is in the air, and that conversation often moves on to discuss the possibility of an Oxbridge application, which is usually met with astonishment at the otherworldliness of the suggestion. Why do they think that and who is telling them to believe such a thing? Students of private schools or less deprived areas don't have that attitude or consider the idea so implausible? It is important that we recognise Oxbridge is not the be-all and end-all for students but we are discussing aspirations and the heights for which young people are encouraged to aim and Oxbridge is a good marker when discussing the matter. In many respects, I admire Mr Lammy's determination to put the idea of Oxbridge into the frame of reference for young people.

There is no question that young people from deprived backgrounds believe that they face discrimination in society as a consequence of their skin colour and/or social backgrounds and this adds to the sense of demoralisation. But I absolutely believe, I tell the students, that one place that won't discriminate against them if they have the grades and talent is Oxbridge. Oxbridge isn't the problem, though; it is the chance of getting those grades, the opportunity to develop their talent and a culture that simply doesn't encourage application that present the greatest barrier. Some of it is down to their own determination and application, but at the heart of the issue is our entire, non-Grammar, state educational system that lacks real, challenging aspiration and essentially ring-fences a set of expectations for each group of children we are faced with. Are they socially deprived? OK, lets get them through school, some decent grades, perhaps university. Well done.

Many reading this will howl with protestation at that assertion, but I am afraid I have seen enough of it to be convinced. It isn't schools or teachers individually, because I don't want to criticise them and things differ from school to school. It is our entire society and fabric that exudes this demeanour. We have conditioned ourselves that working class people approach and absorb education differently and have moulded our system to more or less just try to keep them on track. We serve and feed the monster of low expectation whilst paying it lip service. Indeed, Mr Lammy said in a tweet that "Oxbridge need to recognise the achievements of applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds, underperforming schools & poorer areas." Is Mr Lammy proposing that poor kids are less clever and thus to have achieved means they have worked especially hard, or they are extraordinarily clever because they have achieved in a system that counts against them? I would expect he means the latter, in which case he ought to divert his energies elsewhere. Oxford will take a bright, motivated and talented student on merit and face value, but we have to send more of these students to them from socially deprived backgrounds in the first place.

We would dispute the charge, absolutely and correctly, that socially deprived people are of lower intelligence than those with more wealth, but why then do we degrade and homogenise our curriculum in state schools, expect less, surgically remove challenging cultural or academic pursuits, teach them by rote to be automatons who can get a job, rather than pursue education and cultural enrichment for the sake of it? Do private schools do this? We are still having that debate about why there are lots of "posh" British actors who went to Eton but few who complain about it bother to actually bloody look at the educational and cultural curriculum those schools expose their students to. Private schools do more, it would appear, to instil their pupils with a sense of confidence and it is true that children at these schools are more immersed in the seminar, debating style or tutorial system that Oxford values and which serves them well in interviews for Oxbridge.

This isn't just about black people of course, it is an issue for all ordinary working class kids who are subjected to an education system that whilst generally underfunded, is just not fit for purpose. Private schools are not successful just because they have money, they are successful because they have greater expectations of their students, believe they can achieve more educationally and so teach a curriculum designed to service that potential. I am not at all an advocate for private education; I just want our state schools to work in precisely the same way and make the perceived need for private schools - and grammar schools for that matter -redundant. Successful parents tend to demand more of their children of course, but in many cases, deprived kids do not have that motivational force behind them and so schools MUST assume the role.

So Oxford is not the problem, it shouldn't be the target of this vituperous stereotyping. We should continue to value its rigorous entry criteria and stop chucking huge hints that it just doesn't like poor or diverse people - what do such students derive from hearing this endless narrative that academic establishments don't want them? It is also unfair to diminish the achievements of those students who do get there. Talk of quotas or of withdrawing funding is risible and would lead to a degradation of all the things we want young people to aspire to by aiming for Oxbridge. Mr. Lammy would do better to start further back in the system and give our working class kids of all ethnicities an education system that provides them with the tools and self-belief to aspire to Oxford. The disadvantaged students who currently achieve the grades necessary and have the confidence to apply seem to be successful at a fair rate if the stats are correct, but there should and could be more of them believing that it is a place in which they could thrive. I can assure him that Oxford will take them..


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