Stop sneering at the 'posh' universities

10th August 2007 at 01:00
Libby Purves is a novelist and broadcaster. She presents 'The Learning Curve' on BBC Radio 4

The other night, I was lured to a dinner for one of the Sutton Trust summer schools at Robinson College, Cambridge. It was a blast. I met some superbright young physicists from a Welsh comprehensive (they'd learnt physics to GCSE through Welsh-medium teaching and were unfazed by re-learning all the terms for the English-medium A-level). There were musicians, several keen to become music teachers, and a giggling group of aspiring law students fresh from a mock trial. They were high on it, thrilled to glimpse a new world and the freedom to think things out for themselves beyond the A-level jelly mould. The deputy warden spoke and, while hoping some of them would go to Cambridge, told of his own multi-university background and spoke warmly of university in general.

Yet in the anecdotal experience of those who lead these courses, there are plenty of schools that actively discourage Oxbridge applications and sneer at "posh" universities. Several kids said they had to trawl their schools to find a teacher willing to sign the application for the summer school. Some are told, "You won't fit in it's not your kind of place." All of which must have prophets of aspiration such as Peter Lampl, founder of the Sutton Trust, chewing the carpet in frustration and cause outreach staff at the "posh" universities to beat their heads on the wall and watch nervously for another ill-informed governmental onslaught.

I have met the attitude myself. I once talked to a clever, lairy sixth-form group about media jobs. In discussing degrees, I mentioned the difference between the English courses at Oxford and Cambridge as well as other universities'. On the way out, the teacher hissed: "I wish you hadn't said that. We don't encourage Oxbridge applications here it sets them up to fail."

This nonsense should be a disciplinary offence. Sure, you might fail. Anybody might. The walls of ancient universities are not elastic. But it is wicked for teachers to sneer at imaginary "poshness" and discourage pupils from having a punt and going to an interview merely because they might like the majority not get in. Even more wicked to say they would not fit in socially if they did. Why does any head allow this attitude? Oxford, Cambridge and other high-fliers didn't ask for their largely imaginary social profile. They are working to erode it.

Teachers who bridle at the name of Oxbridge on leftie social grounds are out of date. If you want posh kids whose parents buy them houses, look more widely. Bristol bristles with them, St Andrews and Edinburgh are not short of braying and Boden, Durham sees many a swirling ball-dress, and Exeter is favoured by the surfing set who also love the social scene in the area. And if I remember rightly, all the richer farmers in The Archers send their pony owning offspring to Harper Adams. Before a posse of vice-chancellors comes to kneecap me, let me add that all of these excellent places have "ordinary" kids (and a few "deprived" ones too). So does Oxford and so does Cambridge. There is no reason to be so snippy. Stop it!

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