"Making assumptions about class, background and wealth through compartmentalising and sweeping categories is supremely unproductive"Lucas Maddalena

Dialogue concerning the admittance of state school pupils to the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge has been attracting much attention of late, as Vice-Chancellor Stephen Toope stated that Cambridge intends to reduce intake from independent schools and that pupils who had taken a gap year, which he described as “virtue signalling”, would likewise be scrutinised. Toope seems to believe that by wielding some magical magnifying glass that exposes anything that may indicate a speck of privilege, he will be able to make Cambridge a place of equal opportunity. Yet it is hard to see how these so-called benchmarks to admit more state school and fewer fee-paying pupils are anything more than facile attempts to show that the University is making a contribution to the discourse surrounding inequality at Oxbridge; that they constitute anything more than theatrical bravado, ensuring Toope is given a full two-page spread in The Times.

“Think of how insulting these assumptions about wealth are to them”

Unfortunately, the problem is not neatly divided into a private-state (and of course the grey area that grammar and selective schools occupy) and rich-poor correlation. I myself went to both at different points in my education and have seen just how mistaken these inferences are. At private school, some of my classmates had first-generation parents who had migrated to the UK, worked tremendously hard and made countless sacrifices to put their kids through the highest quality education they could. Think of how insulting these assumptions about wealth are to them.

Granted, Toope has tried to complicate these distinctions, stating that since a private or state education is not a sufficient indicator of a disadvantaged background, criteria could be extended to eligibility to free school meals. Unfortunately, this too appears as nothing more than casuistry, given the difficulty in determining an individual’s true socio-economic status from one-dimensional indicators.

If the aim is to create a meritocratic admissions process, which I think at its crux is indeed the case, making assumptions about class, background, and wealth through compartmentalising and sweeping categories is supremely unproductive. It is a futile task to deduce the extent of someone’s accessibility to educational opportunities by reducing it to one or two insubstantial criteria. If this is then used to ascertain if a pupil is deserving of a place at Oxbridge, we’re on incredibly precarious ground where true intellectual ability and passion that determine the excellency of the university is at stake. So too will the importance of working hard in order to achieve what you want be greatly compromised. The admissions process will be based upon a paralogism that provides a superficial response to a problem whose real solution lies in far earlier educational intervention.

“The truth is, there is no quick fix to making institutions like Oxbridge a meritocracy”

This problem is the lack of opportunity for state school pupils to fulfil their academic potential, a matter that lies beyond the scope of current discourse on Oxbridge admissions. Its solution, that will in turn have positive effects for the way Oxbridge admit pupils, must come from the government. In other words, a preventive approach is required rather than a curative one (not least because the curative approach does not, in fact, cure anything — except a guilty conscience). In the UK, nearly half of secondary school teachers plan on quitting after five years and face immense amounts of stress. I can see why. A typical science lesson at my state school would involve pupils locking teachers out of the classrooms, swearing at them when they got told off — and I distinctly remember one boy brushing his teeth during a maths lesson. They made GCSE lessons rather more entertaining, but must have made life miserable for the teachers who had to deal with them daily.

Teachers simply have no inclination to implement the kind of pedagogy seen in Finnish schools, for example, where teachers must have a master’s degree to teach, that would truly improve the standard of education in state schools. Allowing for the cultivation of the ‘Oxbridge potential’ during those vital years boils down to government funding. Better resources, a bigger staff capacity and higher remuneration would not only put them on a level playing field with independent and fee-paying schools but would change the attitude of the pupils themselves who would work harder, aim higher and apply in larger numbers to institutions like Oxbridge.


Mountain View

Abolishing private schools is not the answer

Transformation of the education system is what will make the Oxbridge student demographic more representative of the intellectually curious teenagers who have great potential to thrive in institutions like these. And the bonus will be a reduction of performative policies whose outward appearance of constructive change serves only to perpetuate the problem they claim to be tackling. In the meantime, Oxbridge can focus on increasing access and outreach campaigns for secondary school pupils, the recent introduction of a foundation year for humanities subjects being one such commendable example.

The truth is, there is no quick fix to making institutions like Oxbridge a meritocracy. Pitting independent and state schools against each other will turn ostensible equality to prejudice, diversification to alienation, and the real problem will remain unaddressed. Recognising that token policies are not a replacement for systemic change, even if that means the date of attaining the ideal Oxbridge is postponed, will at least minimise the damage done on the way and ensure that its attainment will in fact be real, not an illusion.