I woke up this morning to a debate on Radio 4 about Oxbridge and its apparent sluggishness when it comes to offering places to students from working class and BAME backgrounds. It's an argument which has been doing the rounds for years. Periodically, a set of figures, or some sort of initiative, will suddenly shed light on the issue, and, once again, we become outraged, accusing the various institutions of elitism.
My view on the subject is very simple. There is actually plenty of evidence which suggests that Oxford and Cambridge are doing their utmost to attract people from ethnic backgrounds, and furthermore that they're actually being rather successful. Whether or not this is the case (the man who announced this particular piece of information on the radio was cheerfully ignored because it undermined the very debate they were having) many would suggest that, in order to attract more of the "right" types of students, these universities might need to start lowering their standards...
This, in my opinion, should absolutely NOT be encouraged. Firstly, it's patronising. No one wants to gain a place at university that they didn't earn. Secondly, the argument is based on much more complicated foundations. The term "poverty of aspiration" was bandied about a lot in the debate. It's a fancy phrase for something I wholeheartedly believe to be a problem, namely that, regardless of colour, background, class or postcode, if you don't have aspiration, you're screwed. In my view, the problem, if indeed there is a problem, is not caused by elitist Oxbridge colleges, it's caused by secondary schools falling to raise the expectations of naturally-gifted, under-confident students. If they are to reach their full potential, bright children need to be stretched, but the British comprehensive system makes this very difficult to achieve.
I think back to my own school days and those painstaking lessons where the class was effectively held to ransom by badly behaved kids or students who simply took that little bit longer to grasp the concepts we were learning.
Academic success was never truly promoted or celebrated at my school. Brother Edward was the first student EVER from the school to get into Oxbridge. It was an astounding achievement, but it never felt like the school was that fussed about it. The sense was almost that he had ideas above his station and that his academic achievements needed to be kept low key to avoid others feeling inadequate. This, of course, may be a teenager's simplistic perspective on something which was far more nuanced. It may also be that these days, in an era where schools are judged largely on their results, my brother's brilliance might not have been so underreported. That said, a couple of years ago I wrote to the school offering to talk to the kids about careers in the arts and my email was entirely ignored!
My interest in music at school was met with equal bewilderment and dismissiveness. My desire to take part in school concerts and plays was seen as arrogance, almost as though there was a queue of people whom I was blocking by always putting myself at the front of the queue. Despite having had a brother who'd gone to Cambridge, no one ever suggested I apply to the place. Actually, my goal was always to get to York, the music courses at Oxbridge looked as dry as toast, but part of me also felt that, even if I'd wanted to go to Oxbridge, I didn't have the smarts to get in. The feeling that I'm most people's intellectual inferior has nagged me for much of my life. I've convinced myself that I'm a grafter rather than someone who shines with natural ability.
I think a lot about the fact that neither brother Edward nor I read fiction. I read factual books and my brother listens to audio books, but neither of us would ever sit down to read a novel. Sometimes I wonder if this is a result of our schooling. For GCSE English, for example, we barely read anything. We watched films, wrote about them, and critiqued a few short poems. In my entire school career I didn't have the chance to study Shakespeare, Dickens, Brontë, Austin, Steinbeck, Wolf or Joyce. We read Z for Zachariah and the Ghost of Thomas Kempe.
I'm not dissing the school. As I mentioned before, the whole point of a comprehensive school education is that it often has to focus on raising the grades of middling ability students. If you can get a whole swathe of kids up from a D to a C, then a great many new doors are suddenly opened to them. Sadly this means that the brighter students are often left to sink or swim. I come from a middle class background, so it was easier for me to swim. The assumption at home was that I'd go to university, and if my grades started to drop, my parents were quick to step in. I still remember my Mum's almost obsessive mantra, "just GET your GCSE maths, just get a C or above, and then you don't need to worry about maths for the rest of your life."
At my school, the students who risked falling through the cracks were the naturally bright ones who came from backgrounds where education wasn't perhaps as encouraged. My best friend at school had to pay rent through her sixth form and worked several nights a week at the local Kwik Save. The fact that she grabbed life by the balls and now has an enviable existence in Northern Italy is all the more remarkable as a result. Another good friend, who was fiendishly bright, sailed through his GCSEs without lifting a finger, but then tanked his A-levels, because he wildly underestimated how much work he'd need to do, and no one was around to crack the whip hard enough. He was one of the best writers I've ever met.
All this aside, perhaps the biggest problem in this entire debate is that we still fetishise Oxbridge. Even the presenter on the radio said to one of his guests "now you made it to Oxford..." It's seen as the highest possible achievement in early life, but those two universities aren't actually the be all and end all. In fact, they seem to create a powder keg environment which is very unhealthy for many young people and I'm not just writing this because I have a massive chip on my shoulder!
I don't really have a summing up for this blog, because I don't ultimately think the argument is interesting enough. I think this debate is a product of a much wider problem which is that we live in a hugely unequal society but for too long we've been trying to solve the problem by focussing our attention on very specific minority groups. Until we learn that there are aspirationally poor kids across all spectrums of society, all genders, classes, religions and cultures, we will never be able to move forward as a unit.