Unequal Opportunities

The proportion of state-school freshers at Oxbridge is unlikely to increase until the schools themselves improve drastically

This autumn, Cambridge University will admit 200 more state-school pupils than last year. Before we get too excited about this great leap forward for meritocracy, listen to a Cambridge admissions tutor I know. Nick says he stayed up all night re-reading applications. He was trying to find a single state-school student who could compare with candidates from the private system. “If I found one that was halfway OK, there was always a story behind it,” he sighs. “The parents were headteachers or the school was a grammar. A bright working-class kid from a bog-standard comp isn’t educated enough to stand a chance.”

I have been thinking a lot about fairness and Oxbridge since my husband found some old reports from his public school. Reading the salty comments was a hoot for this comprehensive girl until we got to the report for Anthony’s Oxbridge term. I counted at least three learned Latin masters, the same number of dedicated French teachers and four English experts before I started to cry.

Strange how dismaying it was, more than a quarter of a century after taking the Cambridge exam, to discover exactly what I had been up against. I was like a wobbly child on a second-hand Raleigh 20 in a race with the British Olympic cycling team. My husband had a crack band of Oxbridge-educated masters analysing every weakness in his performance. I had well-meaning teachers who loaned me the university prospectus. He had gaps in his knowledge. I had pitiful spots of knowledge in my gaps. I bet I was the only Oxbridge candidate to scrape in that year who wrote a Dickens essay based on my unrivalled knowledge of Lionel Bart’s musical, Oliver!

It should make us all weep that today’s bright state school youngster is in an even worse position. Academic teachers have fled all but the leafiest comprehensives. A maths or science teacher with a degree in their subject is rarer than the unicorn. The Government, which has failed to impose setting by ability in schools, has the cheek to attack the “social bias” in leading universities. Could those be the same universities which are gently lowering the bar to admit teenagers who cannot construct a simple essay and who are under the impression that all of human history took place in Germany between 1939 and 1945?

So two cheers for Cambridge, which has managed to increase its proportion of state-school freshers to 59 per cent this year. That percentage is unlikely to increase, and nor should it, until there is a drastic improvement in secondary education. Alison Richard, Cambridge’s Vice-Chancellor, has just announced that her university is not “an engine for promoting social justice”. She is far too polite to tell Gordon Brown to get his tanks off her lawns. But that is what she means when she says that Cambridge is in the business of education, not social mobility.

Why should the Government be allowed to ignore the mortifying fact that, 40 years ago, the percentage of state school students at Oxbridge was far higher? Back then, pupils like me, from homes without books, could attend grammar schools, which gave them an education that today only money can buy.

If Britain can celebrate Olympic stars who have jumped through the most testing hoops to be the best, why can’t we accept that our cleverest youngsters also need to be selected and trained from an early age? Until that happens, Oxbridge entrance will remain a sport for the best tutored and there will be precious little gold for us.

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