Obsessed with Oxbridge

Is the preoccupation with the dreaming spires damaging social mobility?

Irena Barker

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Laura Mulligan* came round on the floor of the examination hall and saw a huddle of medical staff looking down at her. The sheer stress of the occasion had caused her to black out during the second of her third-year final exams.

And it was at that moment, as medics fussed around her, that she decided she had had enough of Oxford. The exams had sparked a mental breakdown that caused her to leave the dreaming spires and move back in with her parents.

Her excellent grades over the three years she spent at the university counted for nothing. She had sat so few third-year final papers when her world collapsed that she did not even qualify for the consolation prize of a "gentleman's pass".

Laura, whose parents have barely any academic qualifications, is the classic example of an extremely intelligent girl from an ordinary background who did not want to waste her gift for science. But pushed to apply to Oxford by ambitious teachers although she was not particularly motivated to go, she was eventually destroyed by it.

"From the start, I felt so out of place. I was massively homesick, doubted my ability and the quantity of work was incredible. I felt I had got in by accident or to make up the state school numbers," she says.

Although 26-year-old Laura is now in a good job at a software development company, her "failure" at Oxford weighs heavily on her to this day. Her story contrasts with that of Eva Wooding who after a full scholarship at a private school went on to Oxford in 2004 to study Chinese but dropped out after realising that she wanted to study medicine elsewhere. Before applying, she did not visit any other universities.

"It's easy to assume that just because you've been predicted to get four As, you should definitely apply," she says. "But just because you're clever, it doesn't mean you're going to enjoy it."

And then there is sixth-form college student Elly Nowell, who grew up on council estates in Bristol. The 19-year-old attended an interview last autumn to read law at Magdalen College, Oxford, and described the experience as "torture". Afterwards, she wrote them a rejection letter of her own, saying the college had not adequately addressed the narrow gap "between elitism and discrimination" towards state school pupils.

"While you may believe your decision to hold interviews in grand formal settings is inspiring, it allows public school applicants to flourish in the environment they are accustomed to and intimidates state school applicants," she wrote.

As someone almost obsessively keen on what he believes is the transformative power of Oxbridge, these are probably not the type of stories that education secretary Michael Gove wants to hear.

Adopted as a baby by an Aberdeen fish merchant, Gove won a scholarship to a high-performing local independent school before reading English at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford. He then worked as a leader writer at The Times newspaper before entering politics. These are all experiences that have shaped his belief that Oxbridge is the ultimate gateway to success.

As far back as 1988, as president of the high-profile Oxford Union, he was already sure that schools should be pushing more pupils to elite universities. "If our state schools were a little more elitist, if they tested their pupils with greater rigour and frequency, and brought home the difference between failure and success more forcibly, they would have more pupils at Oxford," he wrote in an address to the union. "There are a great many in this country whose sloth, peculiar arrogance and distaste for privilege, mean that they do not think of trying to come to somewhere like Oxford.

"If schools pushed and brought people up to face failure and enjoy success rather than merely ladling out a thin gruel of no-risk conformity then they might be attracting them to Oxford."

And while some of the Tory Boy-style language may have softened in the intervening 24 years, little in his outlook has changed. In an article for the Daily Mail in September 2011, Gove praised London schools such as Burlington Danes Academy in West London and Mossbourne Community Academy in Hackney for pushing children to Oxbridge and "refusing to accept excuses for underperformance".

"Because once you accept that a child is likely to do less well than his contemporaries, you condemn that child to fall further and further behind, to never know the satisfaction of pushing himself beyond his limits, to be a prisoner of others' prejudice. The victim of the bigotry of low expectations," he wrote.

And in May 2012, in a speech to the private Brighton College, he said that the scale of public school dominance in top jobs in Britain was "morally indefensible". "When more Etonians make it to Oxbridge than boys and girls on benefit then we know we are not making the most of all our nation's talents," he said.

In office, his unashamed embrace of the old-fashioned academe that leads to Oxbridge entry was first embodied by the introduction of the English Baccalaureate suite of traditional subjects in 2010.

Most strikingly for schools, however, the Department for Education is also expected to confirm soon whether schools will have to publish the numbers of pupils they send to Oxford and Cambridge in their new "destination data" profile.

Schools minister Nick Gibb also recently launched a scheme to select bright pupils from state schools to visit top universities and report back to their classmates. Its Latin title, the Dux (translation: champion), reflects a certain attachment to a classical education no longer offered by the majority of comprehensives.

The government is not alone in its embrace of prestigious universities. Most prominently, the Sutton Trust charity, led by philanthropist Sir Peter Lampl, aims to improve social mobility by helping disadvantaged pupils into elite universities through a wide variety of schemes, including summer schools.

But is it worth it? Why is this country obsessed with Oxbridge? And is this level of elitism actually damaging social mobility? Increasingly, there are voices that say yes.

What is certain is that in the state sector some schools and colleges are ploughing resources into Oxbridge and Russell Group entry. BSix Brooke House Sixth Form College in Hackney spent pound;10,000 creating a replica of a don's office, complete with leather sofas, to help students acclimatise to academic life. An Oxford academic, Dr Peter Claus of Pembroke College, holds tutorials and seminars in the room as part of the college's Raising Aspirations programme.

Hundreds of pupils in Newham have also leapt at the chance to enrol in the London Academy of Excellence, a new free school backed by eight top private schools that will open in September. Its sole aim is to prepare bright children from underprivileged families for Oxbridge and other Russell Group universities.

It is perhaps not surprising that we are obsessed with elite institutions. In some areas of life, the grip of Oxbridge is extraordinary. For example, of the top 10 Cabinet ministers in the government, only two did not go to Oxford or Cambridge (Andrew Lansley went to Exeter and Iain Duncan Smith went to Sandhurst military academy).

Elsewhere, 82 per cent of barristers and 56 per cent of leading journalists are Cambridge- or Oxford-educated, according to the Sutton Trust.

So top universities, and Oxbridge in particular, are the ticket to an elite club: but Gove knows that there is a huge statistical mountain to climb if that club is to diversify its membership.

According to figures from the former Department for Children, Schools and Families, of 4,516 students eligible for free school meals who secured a pass grade at A level in 2008, only 160 got three As, the minimum entry requirement for Oxbridge. And the Sutton Trust found that between 2005 and 2007, less than one in 100 students admitted to Oxford or Cambridge were eligible for free school meals.

These issues have led Gove's critics to claim that his focus on traditional subjects and elite universities - particularly Oxbridge - can only ever be a drop in the ocean, a sideshow to the bigger issues. Even a dangerous obsession.

Concentrating on the tiny minority of pupils who might be suited to life at Oxbridge, they say, leaves the many other bright students out in the cold.

Only the few

One of the key critics is Million+, the higher education mission group whose membership is made up of many of the "new" universities, such as Anglia Ruskin and Bedfordshire. News earlier this year of the appointment of its chairman, Professor Les Ebdon, as director of the Office for Fair Access (Offa) caused a storm in the right-wing press with allegations that he would introduce a "dumbing down" agenda.

While it certainly did not argue for dumbing down, Million+'s 2011 report Universities Driving Social Mobility: moving beyond the Oxbridge obsession made a very cogent argument against ministers' infatuation with elite institutions.

"The government's focus on fair access to a limited number of universities should not be the whole or even the main story," it stated. "Ensuring that a few more students from disadvantaged backgrounds are able to attend particular universities will not lead to a step change in levels of social mobility."

Million+ chief executive Pam Tatlow adds: "There's no doubt that studying at Oxford or Cambridge will give people advantages and will help them in later life and in their career, but a government's social mobility strategy should be much more than this.

"The majority of students studying at university won't be at Oxbridge. Social mobility is what happens to the majority of the population, not to a very small number of students."

Tatlow highlights new research from Million+'s May 2012 report Never too Late to Learn that showed that a third of undergraduates who are studying at university for the first time are over 21.

"A social mobility strategy that targets only younger people misses out on a whole swathe of people, many of whom haven't had the opportunities or advantages earlier in life. There is currently a very limited vision of what social mobility means."

Sir Martin Harris - director of Offa until Ebdon takes over this August - added to these arguments in his 2010 report What More can be Done to Widen Access to Highly Selective Universities? He said that the government should continue to invest in "the broader picture".

"If there is not sufficient access to higher education across universities and colleges of all types, the socially mobile, highly skilled workforce that lies at the heart of government's ambitions for a globally competitive economy and a cohesive and equitable society will simply not materialise," his report went on.

There does seem to be some momentum behind these views. Labour's former health secretary Alan Milburn, the government's independent social mobility tsar, lambasted employers' obsession with a narrow pool of universities in his May 2012 report Fair Access to Professional Careers.

Speaking at the time, he said that because the 100 top graduate employers on average run recruitment programmes at only 19 "socially exclusive" universities, they were missing out on talent and the professions remained a "closed shop".

The group of universities from which such employers recruit must be rapidly broadened, he added, "if the big growth in professional employment . is to produce a social mobility dividend for Britain".

This apparently elitist focus has also stirred up the best traditions of the anti-elitist Left. For example, Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, says: "When Gove talks about getting free school meals kids into Oxbridge, he uses it as a stick to beat schools with for not transforming the lives of the poorest children. He uses it to avoid having to look at child poverty, deprivation and how government policies are making the lives of poor children poorer."

She points out that even if every one of the 6,500 first-year undergraduate places at Oxford and Cambridge went to students who had been eligible for free school meals in their GCSE year, that would still leave 72,669 pupils without an Oxbridge place.

Tunnel vision

But most importantly, criticism of the Govian obsession with Oxbridge does not come only from union stalwarts. Bernard Barker, emeritus professor at the University of Leicester's School of Education, is currently interviewing 16- to 18-year-olds for his book Dreams of Success: problems of social mobility. This work, he says, suggests that top state school pupils are "much less concerned with improved social status and wealth than the government wants them to be".

"Gove seems obsessed with cloning himself, imagining upwardly mobile orphans forced to read Pope and Dryden on their way to Oxbridge and the House of Commons," the former comprehensive school headteacher says.

"He reveals with his every utterance a complete failure to understand anything beyond the posh academic curriculum he swallowed himself without a critical thought in his head. This has led him to be extremely critical of every other possibility for young people."

However, the fact is that many pragmatic state schools are choosing not to follow the Gove line, not because they lack ambition for their pupils but from what they claim is merely a sense of reality.

For every sixth-form college constructing a replica of an Oxbridge don's office, there is a school whose attentions lie elsewhere. Pattrick Frean, head of Coombe Dean School in Elburton, near Plymouth, sends around one pupil to Oxbridge each year. But he does not have "sleepless nights" worrying about how many of his pupils will go there.

"The focus on Oxbridge has about as much chance of achieving what Michael Gove wants to achieve as sending a copy of the King James Bible to every school, and is somewhat patronising in its presentation."

He stresses that teaching methods at Oxbridge suit only a particular type of student, who must be both academically and emotionally ready.

"Having three A grades at A level is only the first part of someone's ticket to those universities."

He argues vociferously that choosing benchmarks such as Oxbridge entry would mean that the majority of schools and individuals would be "losers". "It is exclusive, divisive and negative," he says.

And of course, all these arguments aside, Oxbridge may simply not be to someone's taste. Indeed, Geoff Parks, director of admissions at the University of Cambridge, is the first to admit that his university's courses may not be for everyone. "Science and engineering courses, for example, are very broad at first and narrow down into specialisms, which can be frustrating for students who want to specialise early."

And as the education secretary agonises about poor children not learning the appropriate poetry to matriculate, a new trend is emerging. With the advent of university fees of up to pound;9,000 and extensive graduate unemployment, many young people are reassessing the need for university at all.

More and more big graduate employers are introducing apprenticeship-style programmes to pick the best A-level candidates straight from school. Some big accountancy firms demand as many as 300 Ucas points or three Bs at A level.

Jobs currently available include an pound;11,500 higher apprenticeship at Cisco Systems complete with laptop and mobile and a pound;15,000-a-year higher apprenticeship at Visa Europe. Deloitte, Logica and other big names are offering similar programmes, some of which even lead to degree-level qualifications. BIS says that 457,000 apprenticeships started in 2010-11, an increase of 63.5 per cent on the previous year.

The introduction of Lord Baker's university technical colleges will also increase vocational education available to 14- to 19-year-olds. However, Gove is not thought to be a huge fan of the project, which was first backed by Lord Adonis under Labour.

But the fact that 34 university technical colleges have been approved so far, with more in the pipeline, does not mean that the elitism at the heart of government and the media is dissipating.

Just ask Norfolk teacher Jonny Griffiths. He became the unlikely source of a media storm when he was attacked by everyone from ministerial advisers to newspaper columnists after admitting in TES that he had once suggested to an over-anxious pupil that Oxbridge did not matter all that much. "I only asked him if it was better to go to Bangor with three Cs and love it, than Cambridge with three As and hate it," he says.

Griffiths points out that his own maths degree at Cambridge had been "dry and dusty" and had somewhat killed his passion for maths. Although he enjoyed aspects of life at Cambridge, the course had not suited him at all.

"It's a rarefied atmosphere there, you are climbing to the top and the air's a bit thin. There's no point in getting someone into Oxbridge if they're not going to enjoy it. To use a metaphor: if you want to learn boogie-woogie piano and Oxbridge offers only classical, you're going to go elsewhere."

* Name has been changed.

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Irena Barker

Irena Barker is a freelance journalist.

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