A few years ago I had a summer scholarship at St Johns College, Oxford University. It allowed me to concentrate on research and use the fantastic shrimp collection at the Oxford University Natural History museum. It was probably a once in a lifetime experience and something I treasure – 6 weeks of working in the dreaming spires of Oxford rather than the rather less dreamy bungalows of Scarborough Campus, Hull University. St John’s is a world apart from my day to day experience of teaching and researching in University for the last 10 years. Even though some college tutors at Oxbridge can have fairly heavy teaching loads they are working with very good students.
Many of my students in the Centre for Environmental and Marine Sciences, are also very good, but they tend not to be from public school, some of them even have regional accents! It is fairly unusual for us to have straight A students, but I have learned over the years that often A level results are not an infallible indication of potential or ability. Many of our students are, as I was, the first in their family to go to university. For many the simple aspiration was just to get to university, any university. Many had, for one reason or another, a disaster in their final A-level year caused by poor schooling, lack of support, illness, the need to work or just hormones. Also of course you have to remember that they are generally not at fee paying schools where kids come from an atmosphere where reading a book is the norm and families discuss current affairs around the breakfast table.
Even if you are an able student your peers are likely to be a mixed bag, some with the normal sorts of social problems non-privileged kids might have. Teachers at their school may have to invest as much in crowd control as teaching. In this atmosphere being even just a capable student can be social suicide and aspirations are likely to be more immediate than long term life goals. Expectations at schools with challenging catchments may just be to get students through in one piece and give them some sort of education. If you are a fairly smart parent, with some energy and time, you can play the system to try and give your child the advantage of a better school or move house so that you fall into the right catchment. I know parents who have bought a tumbledown second house in a good area just so that their kids can go to a better school. But many parents don’t have the desire, ability, finance or energy to help their kids get into higher education.
If by some miracle a child or young person manages to be the 1 in 10 or 20 that makes it to university from their challenged school, they are special. They have demonstrated determination, drive, an ability to challenge the social norms of their local culture to succeed and intelligence. Unfortunately I think many of those characteristics don’t translate directly into A* A-levels. These folk have also not had the advantage of coaching in getting through entrance examinations or interviews. They will not be comfortable in the atmosphere of an upper class establishment with oak panels, hundreds of years of history and received pronunciation. They will not be practiced in vocalising their thoughts. They are not expected to go to a particular college to study a particular topic. When they are interviewed by Oxbridge dons they are likely to falter, mumble, look away. They will, while being put through a completely alien process, wonder why they are putting themselves through it when everything around them is telling them they would be more comfortable at a red-brick establishment, probably studying something “practical”.
I asked some of the academics in St Johns about the poor levels of entrance of non-public school kids to Oxbridge generally and got the response that “we do try they just don’t seem to do well in our entrance system, they don’t have the confidence and can’t show us their ability. It’s a terrible shame”. At the time, I just thought “Oh well, such is life” but over the last few years I have changed my mind. These are publicly sponsored institutions that have a duty to find the best people and give them the best possible education. They should not be taking the best prepared people who naturally feel it is their right to go to Oxbridge, those who come from the correct background.
Over the years I have noticed that as you progress through the ranks of academia, at least in red-brick institutions, there is a form of natural selection and the proportion of private school educated people around you drops precipitously. This could be of course because I work in science rather than art and posh people generally don’t do science. But I like to think it is a reflection of ability, eventually, trouncing background. It makes me think though that the Oxbridge type institutions are missing the very best students. Ben Goldacre (author of Bad Science and Bad Pharma) recently wrote a report for Michael Gove that suggests ways in which policy in education could be driven by research rather than whim. Entrance to university, the mechanisms of selection used and subsequent progress of students from a variety of backgrounds would to me seem to be one area ripe for investigation.
The onus should be on Oxbridge to develop their entrance systems to actively seek out the best students and traditional entrance exams and interviews may not be the best mechanism. These institutions should be reaching out to communities and going into schools to talk to teachers and students on their own terms, finding the good ones and begging them to come to their university. Peter Wilby in the Guardian suggests that Oxbridge should identify the most able students in each school and give them every possible support. He identifies interesting consequences for the attitudes of middle class parents towards schools in deprived areas. Until the ratio of public:privately educated students entering these Oxbridge type institutions matches that of the general populace they will continue to be assessing applicants on the basis of class rather than potential. To me the use of taxpayers’ money to teach a socially cleansed student population, to artificially enhance the opportunities of those that already have them in abundance is immoral.
Dr Magnus Johnson is a lecturer in Environmental Marine Biology at the Centre for Environmental and Marine Sciences, University of Hull. His thoughts are his own.