Elitism is hot right now. David Cameron was recently criticised by pedants over his claims that he wanted see more of it in education. He meant that everyone should have access to the best form of education - Eton for everyone, I suppose. Michael Gove has repeatedly emphasised his desire to see more state schools send their children to Russell Group universities, claiming that the number of children from state schools already in these academic launch pads is deplorable. That’s certainly the popular cry I’ve heard in education over the years, especially in any conversation about Oxbridge: too private, they say; too posh.
I’ve also had conversations with state students who, when I’ve asked them to consider Oxbridge or another top twenty uni, have said, ‘No, that’s not for me. It’s full of stuck-up toffs,’ as if we still existed in the world of the dandy. There are teachers too who have bristled at the mention of sending kids there and who have told students that such places weren’t for people like them and that they ‘wouldn’t enjoy it.’
Now Les Ebdon, the apparently anagrammatically named director of the Office for Fair Access (Offa),says there is too much pressure on children to go to these institutions. He’s suspicious of recent plans to make schools publish data about alumni destinations. According to the Don, it will encourage schools to discourage students from progressing onto paths that might be more suited for them - apprenticeships, for example.. “One of our problems is there’s such a dreadful snobbery about whether people go to university or which university they go to,” he said. “I would hate to see that work through into undue pressure on schools.”
Some schools, of course, are excellent conduits for all of their students, whether their destinies lie in silk or engine grease. But it’s a tricky balancing act. On one hand, you want students to flourish in everything they do, regardless of their career aspirations. Otherwise, you fall into the trap of seeing schools as factories for creating a workforce, which they can be, but only incidentally it’s not their primary focus. On the other hand, you want students to be able to develop their own particular interests and talents.
So do we encourage them to go or not? In my experience, Mr Ebdon has little to worry about. The biggest problem facing those who want to revolutionise the social demographic of Oxbridge isn’t that teachers over promote them but that they discourage. I’ve worked a lot with Cambridge Union state access, and believe me, they are herniating with the effort of outreach: multiple open days, visits to schools, funded taster sessions and so on, all targeted at state schools. When was the last time a red brick university organised a taster day for the boarders of the independent sector? No takers? I wonder why that is?
Given that the fees for Oxford University are exactly the same as, say, the University of Central Lancashire this isn’t down to money. It’s down to grades, and the aspiration to apply.