Oxbridge: ‘Contextual’ offers don’t go far enough

While they're a nice idea, what's really needed to help everyone is a radically different exam system, writes Natasha Devon

Natasha Devon, Oxbridge, Contextual offers, A level, Disadvantaged pupils, exam system

This week the Office for Students (OfS) has called for students from the "poorest backgrounds" to be considered for Oxford and Cambridge university places if they have a B and two Cs at A level, rather than the traditional three As.

Evidence shows that young people admitted to Oxbridge or Russell Group universities with BCC grades have a 46 per cent chance of graduating with a first or upper-second-class degree. So-called "contextual offers", OfS argue, will give the brightest young people from deprived areas a shot at the top unis and iron out some of the inequality in our education system.

It’s a lovely little idea, although having listened to a radio phone-in on the topic I’ve already caught a glimpse of the inevitable cries of “we are not privileged, really” and “why are we rewarding mediocrity?” from the privately educated. I’ll also be interested in where the OfS thinks the line is between "poor" and not.

In some ways, it’s refreshing the see the problem identified and a potential solution offered. I’m not ridiculous enough to believe that the most intelligent and gifted teenagers in the country all happen to come from one of about eight schools, but I do think the proposal addresses symptoms as opposed to causes.

First of all, a pupil from an economically deprived background who gets into Oxbridge on a BCC is going to have a hideous time of it. If the headlines are anything to judge by, these places are already steeped in hierarchy and elitism, without some students (and, no doubt, their peers) feeling as though they got in on a special, charity-style dispensation. I was predicted three As at A level and I went to Cambridge University’s open day at 17 years old. I came back determined I wouldn’t go there, I told my parents “I hated it” because “everyone was a right knob”.

With my adult head on, I now recognise my "knob" analysis was my way of saying that I had felt like a fish out of water. I didn’t know what the rules were and I couldn’t relate to anyone. One of my fellow candidates laughed at me when I didn’t understand something she said in Latin. Coming as I did from Essex, I was operating on a different (and equally unhelpful) value system and remember thinking she had quite the nerve laughing at me whilst wearing such hideous shoes.

If Oxbridge wants to attract pupils from a more diverse range of backgrounds (and it should), maybe it should think about making its culture more accessible and welcoming for them.

Anyway, I digress. That’s just a minor quibble, born out of personal experience. My main objection is this: if the "brightest" pupils from poor backgrounds aren’t able to access Oxford and Cambridge because their grades don’t match the university’s expectations, we have to ask what universities believe grades are measuring and why they are evidently failing to do so.

It’s clear that A-level results aren’t giving an accurate picture of the type of intelligence or potential the top universities are seeking. These aren’t, of course, the only types of intelligence, but if I had a quid for every time an employer had moaned that A levels hadn’t given their apprentices or trainees the skills they needed I’d be very rich indeed.

So isn’t it logical to conclude that it’s the current nature of exams that are the problem? That continuing to value the ability to remember and regurgitate arbitrary facts isn’t serving young people or our society? Wouldn’t it be prudent to redesign examinations so they give a more comprehensive idea of what a student is capable of? After all, if policymakers insist on pushing relentless testing throughout school, they might at least ensure what is being tested has some value.

If the Oxbridge story tells us anything, it’s that it’s time to tear up the exam rulebook and try something revolutionary.

Natasha Devon MBE is the former government mental health champion. She is a writer and campaigner and visits an average of three schools per week all over the UK. She tweets @_NatashaDevon

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