Gordon: why we should have known

I don’t suppose Gordon Brown has thought about Laura Spence for years. I was reminded of her today by this poll published by the Sutton Trust, which suggests that the majority of state school teachers believe that less than a third of Oxbridge students went to state schools (the real figure is 54%) and that Oxford and Cambridge are more expensive to attend than other universities (their tuition fees are the same as most, they have more generous hardship provisions, and, critically, a lot of colleges house all their students at heavily subsidised rates for their entire degree). Worst of all, only 54% of those surveyed would “always” or “usually” encourage their brightest pupils to apply. A staggering 20% never would. Yes, at the oft-invoked “beginning of the twenty-first century”, 20% of state school teachers would rather peddle snidey crap and limit their pupils’ chances of personal and professional development in order to keep themselves in mean-spirited sub-Marxist pub rants, if the poll is to be believed.

This was not, as I recall, a problem Laura Spence had. Her headmaster was energetically fighting her cause, to the point of involving the national press in the “scandal” that she had been rejected to read medicine at Magdalen College, Oxford because she was a Geordie state school pupil. In the ensuing public furore, Laura was offered a place to read biochemistry by a typically on-the-ball Harvard. Off she happily went, and may yet be played by Reese Witherspoon in a film of her life.

All sorts of interesting gobbets then tumbled out. For a start, Magdalen absolutely rejected accusations of prejudice and threw sheaves of figures into the papers, and it is particularly unfortunate for the line Spence’s camp was peddling that the admissions tutor at the college was himself from Newcastle. But then Oxbridge dons, conditioned to unabashed rationalism and unused to the pitfalls of media re-interpretation, willingly acknowledged when questioned that there were problems with interviewing state school pupils – one had to make allowances for the fact that they were likely to be less polished, less prepared, less confident, than the private school pupils who had had all traces of gaucherie expensively eradicated. They were promptly labelled snobs for recognising this distinction. The professor who chaired the panel that interviewed Laura said, with some surprise, that if Laura had applied for biochemistry she would certainly have got in; medicine was then the most competitive subject in Oxford bar none and Magdalen is one of the most highly sought-after and competitive colleges. The crucial implications of this statement – is there something unfair, not about the Oxbridge admissions system as a whole, but about the colleges system? – were totally swept away in the frothing sea of bigotry.

For what it’s worth, I think they probably do the best they can with the resources and time available; every applicant gets allotted two colleges to interview them as well as their chosen college (or three if they haven’t put a first choice) and then over a few days every December tens of thousands of eighteen-year-olds, whoever they are, wherever they’re from, are shuffled in and out of oak-clad studies in a frantic tarantella of social equality. It’s a tremendous feat of organisation whose intentions are nothing but good, but it’s nowhere near perfect and its particular weakness, anecdotally, is that the most popular colleges are inevitably over-subscribed. This has the knock-on effect of the popular colleges sending more applicants on to their second college, by which time the second college may have filled all its places. And this weakness is particularly damaging to state school applicants like Laura Spence because they are less likely to have had someone put the following word in their shell-like, If you really want to get in, apply to a college with 1970s buildings, and if there is any slight variation offered on your chosen subject that would suit you just as well as the mainstream version, apply for that instead.

Anyway, back to Laura’s Fairytale, and enter stage left, trundling like a vengeful redbrick dalek, the then Chancellor of the Exchequer: “ELITism! ELITism!” The analogy is apt because, while some die-hards claim to find the daleks terrifying, a large section of the population just finds them daft. All his frothing – absolute scandal, old school ties, old establishment interview system, time to open up to women etc etc – sounded like a sub-standard bit of Morse dialogue, shot through with a petulance and an ill-informed silliness which seemed, to the unpoliticised student I then was, oddly out of character for the Iron Chancellor. But of course, there’s nothing in that little tantrum I haven’t learnt afresh over the past few months, watching Gordon play knock-down-ginger with general elections and European treaties, and twitching at PMQs like a wounded gnu. I should have trusted the early evidence. He is a very silly man.




    I now have Mitch Benn’s Gordon Going to the Dentist song in my head

    Gordon Brown
    Feels no pain
    Gordon Brown the Iron Chancellor…

    * scrabbles for the radio *

  2. During my time at Cambridge and before three things became clear.

    First was that the University as a whole, and the colleges bent over backwards to encourage state school pupils to apply and to reach out to all sections of society.

    Second was that state schools will not always prepare students for Oxbridge – this was the case with many people I met applying for Maths. You pretty much needed Further Maths (unless you were very good and could learn it in a couple of weeks at the beginning of the course), but state schools would not teach it, leaving many to study it themselves with the extra-curricular help of their teachers. I believe the admissions tutors did try to compensate for that, but it can’t have been easy for applicants. (The other hurdle was STEP papers which are needed for most Cambridge maths entrants – state schools again would not offer as much support)

    Third was from an encounter with a 6th Former who was on a course at the University. She wanted to go to Cambridge, she asked to go on this course, her Head Teacher would not let her through some sort of inverse snobbery. Thankfully she had a teacher who encouraged her ambition and sent her on it whilst keeping it a secret from the head.

    The second point is a failure of the state system. It cannot adapt to allow pupils to excel and to offer needed support (for any pupil with special needs it seems).
    The third is just class prejudice, and frankly disgusting.

  3. That’s a dreadful story. You really have to feel for the poor kids – because that’s all we are at eighteen – having these authority figures suddenly get incredibly dogmatic and damning about something that they think they might actually want.

    And you get anecdotes like that all over the place. I had an argument along these lines not too long ago with the Norfolk Blogger, in which I solemnly and piously laid into him for his anti-Oxbridge attitude until it emerged that in fact he is a primary school teacher! So no practical damage is being done there. Still, not encouraging. You’d think that if people genuinely believe Oxford and Cambridge are bastions of appalling privilege, they’d been keen to have bright people from unprivileged backgrounds step up and take them on. I think it’s fair to say there are some appalling self-satisfied twats at both (as at all Russell Group universities, no doubt), but a decently framed argument often does the job of taking them down a peg 😀

  4. I agree with the thrust of your post, but I just thought I’d add a couple of things:

    Yes, private schools give you the advantage of people who can tell you a bit about the colleges and the ones to avoid (and I should know, as a privately schooled student now at Queens’, Cambridge). It has to be said, however, that a bit of googling will quickly furnish you with the information that Magdalene Oxford, to take Laura Spence’s case, takes a comparatively low number of Pre-Clinical Medicine students a year: the information is freely available on Oxford’s website.

    Similarly, alternative prospectuses are usually available on the web to give you some idea about the character of colleges if you don’t know anyone you can ask; the official prospectus, in my experience, said so little of any use on this subject as to be completely unhelpful in choosing a college.

    Lastly, it is slightly misleading of both Magdalene and Harvard to draw an equivalence between biochemistry and medicine – it is, after all, rather trickier to go and work as a doctor off the back of a biochemistry degree, and we have to assume that anyone applying for medicine had that in mind.

    At the end of the day, though, the sad truth is that generally, the admissions procedure works. The people interviewing you are interested only in finding people who they think would benefit from the opportunity of an Oxbridge education the most. That doesn’t mean simply the best prepared; if you show the ability to pick up new ideas and think sensibly about them, they will see that. Preparation simply means they will have to push a little further to find something you’re not so sure about. For most subjects, that is enough. Medicine is, perhaps, an exception. Anyone will tell you that it is very competitive, at almost any college you apply to. Similarly, as Tristan mentions above, Maths.

  5. Interestingly, Laura Spence did eventually end up at Oxbridge reading Medicine. She is (or at least was) at Wolfson, Cambridge on the grad medicine course.

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