Breaking oxbridge stereotypes
I sort of re-interpreted this sketch by Imran Yusuf on the back of a polarised Twitterfeed all around The Oxford vs Cambridge Boatrace. It’s at this time of year when one side tears into oxbridge over elitism and the other side sighs in resignation over trying to break negative stereotypes.
As far as The Boatrace is concerned, it probably doesn’t help the public mindset that The Boatrace is an entrenched part of the aristocratic social season. Ascot, Henley, Cowes Week, The Chelsea Flower Show, The Proms. Actually, the list of events has expanded to things like the FA Cup Final – football going posh or posh gettin’ down wiv da people? I guess having a US investment bank that most people had never heard of being the main sponsor, and having an official champagne probably didn’t help on the PR front either. I don’t think they went as far as the Olympics did on brand policing, eg by banning other brands of champagne from the banks of the Thames though.
Cambridge is changing, and will change even further
Back in the late 1990s when trying to find a venue to host my 18th birthday party, one clear message that came from all of the colleges I phoned was that if I was not a member of the college or university, they were not interested. That was before I even got to mention what I wanted to book a hall for. Things were that polarised. If you wanted to hire a venue in those days, you really did have to have connections.
These days, I can wander into a free lecture carrying Puffles the dragon fairy with me and have the porters not even batting an eyelid. So long as I make it clear I know where I am going or what I am there for. (What I tend to do is to turn up & ask politely anyway – just so that I know that they know what I’m there for, and not just a lost tourist).
“Is it true that only posh rich people can go to Cambridge?”
Actually, in the grand scheme of things, Cambridge is very good at filtering out those that go there with a sense of entitlement but without the academic talent that would merit being granted a place. At the university I went to, I met a number of people who were rejected by oxbridge. When I returned home and found myself through various voluntary and social activities socialising with people at Cambridge, it became very clear to me why the admissions tutors had rejected the people who ended up at my old university. They may have had the grades, but did not have the aptitude nor attitude to contribute towards the life of the college & university. Looking at the three people from my old secondary school who succeeded on getting to Cambridge, all three of them stood out as being ultra-talented academically – more so than the next cohort of nominally academic high fliers. The three of them all did A-level maths two years early. This was in the mid 1990s. For me it would have been more of a shock if they had been rejected than accepted.
As for me? I had neither the capability nor aptitude for either Oxford or Cambridge. Having been in relationships and having had friends who studied at both, I simply would not have coped with the workload and intensity that undergraduate life involves at either institution.
“Yeah, but the data shows that it’s full of poshos, doesn’t it?”
If you mean by the state school vs private school split, it’s still disproportionately in favour of the latter, even though with Cambridge the majority are nominally state-educated. I say ‘nominally’ because one of the top five schools to send children to Cambridge is my old state-funded sixth form college – Hills Road Sixth Form College. What the data doesn’t tell you for this and other state schools is the number of people who opted back into the state sector for A-levels. Certainly during my time at Hills Road, there were many who did exactly this. Not that this is a problem – the state education system is there for all. Even the wealthy. It also increases the likelihood of people having to work with people from a greater variety of backgrounds, even if they do not socialise together outside of the classroom. Affluent parents bestowing expensive designer clothes and brand new cars on teenagers – you can see the polarisation between cool & uncool already.
“So…what’s your point?”
It’s not simply a case of state vs private. There is a degree of fluidity between when people move between state and private schools – in both directions. What we don’t have is sufficient data to inform us of the numbers and impact. I’ve met people Cambridge graduates who were in the state system for GCSEs but in the private system for A-Levels and vice-versa.
The bigger problem is with the schools and the cultures within communities. Especially where the culture is a ‘closed’ one. There are several people I can think of from my late primary school/early secondary school who were failed by the education system in that the schools failed to recognise their talent and potential. These people would surely have thrived had they had the proper support – going onto some of the top universities in the country. But at the time, there was no culture of ‘talent spotting’ and providing the necessary support. Interaction with outside organisations at the time was minimal and negligible. Achievement as far as schools were concerned was on who got what grades rather than providing the solid foundations and inspiring young people to have a positive vision for what they wanted to become.
Have things changed? Yes – Inevitably because society has. But that doesn’t mean the changes have been equal and in the right direction. (By the latter I mean that there is a greater chance of more children achieving their potential).
With fees rising to eye-wateringly high levels, university applicants have, not surprisingly chosen to ‘aim higher’ with their choices – even though in 2010 Universities Minister David Willetts sent out a ‘different’ message. The new university landscape is also polarised. The Universities and Colleges Union said that 49 establishments faced a “serious impact”, with four at “very high risk”. I’d be interested to see how the diversity figures of those 49 and four (which can be found here) compare with Oxford and Cambridge – the latter of which recently raised nearly £2billion in donations as part of its 800 year anniversary celebrations.
It’s also worth having a look at the career destinations of Oxford, and of Cambridge graduates, though those numbers don’t give us the full picture. For example what percentage of people going into finance are oxbridge graduates, and how does their average starting salary compare with graduates of other universities? Certainly teaching ranks highly, but then several colleges were founded for, and have courses designed for that purpose – such as Homerton College Cambridge (which hosts the Faculty of Education on its grounds).
Giving the other 2000 schools a chance
“There is a despairing consensus around the table that the university cannot repair the gaps in this candidate’s knowledge”
This from an article in The Guardian where it shadowed part of the admissions process. It’s also one of the reasons why Teach First was set up – encouraging Oxford & Cambridge graduates in particular to go into teaching first – in economically deprived areas, before a career elsewhere. Ditto with The Sutton Trust’s summer schools programme which takes children out of their normal surroundings and puts them in the surroundings of a high performing university. Unfortunately, such schemes will always be sticking plasters on gaping wounds unless they become much more mainstreamed and properly funded: ie through the state rather than charitable donations.
To what extent can universities compensate for the imbalances of resources between state and private schools?
Compare an inner city state secondary to the wealth and resources at a school like Haileybury in Hertfordshire – have a look at this video. As the headteacher of the school I’m a governor at told me, there’s just no way many schools in the state sector can compete with private schools blessed with that sort of wealth – a wealth that gets recycled through donations from successful alumni. For me it’s testament to the children from poorer-performing and under-resourced state schools who can overcome all of those additional barriers to compete and beat their privately-educated counterparts to places at Oxford and Cambridge. eg where you don’t have the modern equipment, where the school you go to is one that prospective teachers would rather avoid, and/or where your home environment is unstable whether due to family breakdown or a home unfit for human habitation.
Which then brings me onto something about schools that I feel is all too often missed.
A school is not, and should not be a standalone institution. Rather, it should be an integral part of the community within which it resides.
How can a school be expected to thrive if it does not have the active support of the community around it? It’s one of the reasons why I offered to become, and became a community governor at my former primary school. They sent out a call, I responded. Part of my responsibility is to look outwards from the school to the wider community (geographical and virtual) to see how they can help my school. The big thing on my plate at the moment is the new computing curriculum that’s due to come in in September 2014. One of the things I want to make sure of then is that the school and the teachers have both the training and the equipment to deliver that curriculum. If all goes well, in the next few weeks one of the teachers will be posting a guest blogpost on here with a series of very specific questions that I’m going to throw out to all of you for your thoughts.
“What could Cambridge University be doing in particular – especially locally?”
Much as I have issues with them, the first place to look at is the league tables for Cambridgeshire. Here for primary schools and here for secondary schools. On the latter, Coleridge and Manor secondary schools are within walking distance of some university establishments, yet with only 38% and 29% of school leavers leaving with 5 A*-C grades at GCSE, why isn’t Cambridge University offering more substantial support to the two secondary schools that serve two of the most economically deprived parts of Cambridge? *[See updates below for responses].
I have a sort-of indirect interest in that the school I am a governor for is a feeder school for one of the schools, and I have friends who went to both.
There’s also the reality check too. Just as The Sutton Trust has summer schools, and Cambridge has public engagement and outreach programmes, is there also merit in having things that go the other way on a shorter timescale? For example having undergraduates who perhaps have been brought up and educated in affluent surroundings undertaking day visits to state secondary schools as part of their courses or as a programme put on by their colleges? Where they get to meet the children, the teachers, the parents and the governors? After all, how easy is it for someone who went to school in 500 acres of Hertfordshire countryside in affluent surroundings to empathise with someone who went to school in an inner city area where the grass does not grow? (i.e. a school with no playing fields & only concrete playgrounds on the roof of the school (Space can be used imaginatively, but it’s not the same as the rolling countryside)).
I’m not saying it would change the world, but it might help change the perspectives of some people on all sides. And then…who knows?
[UPDATED TO ADD]
Leila Luheshi has pointed me to the Stimulus Project on all things maths and science, which according to it’s 2011/12 annual report sent students on placements across the city – 134 in the lent term. (SPLENDID!!!)
But…there is room for improvement if cultures are to change – mindful that if that is 134 people taking part that term & 245 over the academic year, it’s still only about 2% of the undergraduate population of 12,070. If we could get the percentages up to the high 30s, would that start to have an impact on culture?