Ivory towers should be built on merit

It is patronising to working-class students to suggest that Oxbridge should 'positively discriminate' in their favour.

Francis Boorman

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Every year, a furore breaks out over Oxbridge’s admissions policy. This year teachers hit the headlines when they claimed that ‘the new Oxford University history entrance test is unfair to working-class students’, because it uses difficult language (1). Is there really a secret network of public school old-boys keeping state-educated kids out?

I’m a state-school pupil who got four As at A-level and didn’t get into Oxford – but rather than blaming discrimination, I just think that I didn’t make the grade at interview. The interview process involved staying at Oxford for a couple of days, and in my case, three different interviews and one written test. The test was stretching. The interviews were also a little intimidating. Questions were thrown at me on a subject until I could give no more worthwhile answers. But overall, I quite enjoyed my time there. I’m just going to try to learn from my experience and benefit from the feedback they gave me.

The media have promoted the stories of individuals who were unhappy at their treatment during interview, and even unhappier about the fact that they were rejected. The most prominent case exploded into the headlines in May 2000 when Laura Spence, a high-achieving pupil at a northern comprehensive, was rejected from Oxford, despite having 10 A or A*s at GCSE and several A grades at A-level. Spence was given backing by her headteacher, and the issue was soon taken up by chancellor Gordon Brown and then foreign secretary Robin Cook. Despite receiving offers from several other good British universities, Spence opted to go to Harvard, and has subsequently graduated.

Accusations of discrimination resurfaced again in 2002 when the academically excellent and profoundly deaf student Anastasi Fedotova was also rejected by Oxford (2). She was later accepted by Cambridge to study mathematics. Surely there is some form of discrimination if outstanding candidates are being rejected?

There most certainly is, and its basis is largely academic. With 22.4 per cent of all A-level marks awarded being As (3), and the huge number of applicants per place at both Oxford and Cambridge, it is impossible to give a place to everyone who comes to interview with several As. The point of inviting people to interview is to trim down numbers in the fairest way possible – by meeting applicants and trying to discover their potential. Stories about cruel interviewers putting applicants through emotional torment are often nothing more than the first encounter someone has had with a rigorous intellectual grilling. And if Oxbridge is to get the most gifted candidates, it has to push them to their limit.

It’s wrong to say that entrance tests using difficult language are geared towards the middle classes. Rather than trying to find out whether you speak the Queen’s English at home, the tests are instead designed to see if you are able to interpret a text analytically. The interest is more in analytical ability developed both in and outside of school, not your ability to ‘talk posh’. It is patronising to working-class applicants to suggest that putting a few long words into the entrance test will prevent them from being able to get a place.

According to the Independent, 55 per cent of Oxford recruits this year were from state schools. The government target was recently raised from 68 per cent to 77 per cent (4). Such government pressure is creating a situation in which Oxford feels that it either has to take less able candidates from the state sector (the dreaded positive discrimination), or go private in order to escape government targets.

But it’s not public school prejudice causing the problem – it is the massive gap in academic standards between the state and private sectors. Before the abolition of grammar schools in the 1970s, 70 per cent of Oxford’s intake was from the state sector (5).

A recent article in the Observer states that ‘Nearly a quarter of the small pool of private school A-level candidates achieve three straight As; only six per cent of the overwhelmingly larger pool of state school candidates achieve the same result’ (6). There is a much stronger culture of achievement in private schools, where several As at A-level are encouraged or even expected. Combine this with private schools’ vastly superior funding and it is not surprising that so many people come out of a private education with the right grades and the right attitude to win places at Oxbridge.

There are still some cases of snobbery and elitism in Oxbridge admissions, but this situation won’t be helped by government quotas. The odd tutor may favour the sons of old friends or act upon a whimsical prejudice, but this isn’t solved by imposing a different kind of non-meritocratic discrimination. We should be encouraging state-school kids to win a place by showing admissions tutors they deserve it. Otherwise we are undermining their achievements and failing to encourage them to work harder and learn more.

The problem of Oxbridge admissions lies less with fusty Oxbridge dons who are conspiring to keep out poor kids, than with the overall standard of free schooling.

Francis Boorman recently finished his A-levels, and worked as an intern at spiked.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Education

(1) Oxford entrance test is unfair to working class, claim teachers, Daily Telegraph, 11 October 2004

(2) How Oxford’s admissions work, BBC News, 19 August 2002

(3) A-level results by subject 2004, Guardian, 19 August 2004

(4) Admissions policy will force Oxford to go private, says college head, Independent, 6 October 2004 [reproduced on Akme]

(5) Oxford threatens to go private if it is forced to take more state pupils , The Times (London), 6 October 2004 [reproduced on Akme]

(6) Good for Oxford … but the rest?, Observer, 10 October 2004

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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