Talkback

13th October 2000 at 01:00
When Laura Spence, the state-school pupil rejected by Oxford, reappeared in the tabloid press, A-level results blazing, my heart sank. This girl, it seems, just can't keep her face out of the papers - although I wonder if her cause would have been championed with so much vigour had she been fat and spotty.

Like most Oxbridge students, I'm sick to death of hearing about Harvard's latest recruit. Yes, her A-level results are excellent, but that's not enough. The comment made by one of her interviewers - that she "lacked confidence" - explains her rejection. A reason of practicality - not prejudice - which every Oxbridge student can understand.

Teaching at Oxbridge is not like teaching at school. Nor, indeed, teaching at other universities. The academics aren't trained teachers, they're specialists who meet with individual students for an hour or two a week to discuss their pet topic. These sessions - called "supervisions" or "tutorials" - are, together with optional lectures and practicals for scientists, all the teaching an undergraduate can expect.

The student is left to figure out what he or she is supposed to learn, and then go off to the library and learn it. This would be impossible for a student who has no confidence in his or her abilities. With no teacher on hand to reassure and praise, Oxbridge undergraduates must shoulder responsibility for their own courses - a system ideal for some, excruciating for others.

As a state-school pupil, I found my first year at Cambridge challenging - but wonderful. I loved the freedom of deciding what I was going to study each week, and when and how I was going to find what I had to know.

The confidence necssary for this kind of independent learning is essential to an Oxbridge student - far more so than a fistful of A-grades. Laura Spence may be extremely intelligent, but if she does not enjoy working in this way she would have been miserable - and unsuccessful - at Oxford.

That's why Oxbridge has always placed so much emphasis on interviews. The process of gaining a degree is very different from that of gaining an A-level, so the universities need to know more about someone than A-level results can tell. The tabloid press, always keen to launch an attack on "elitism", have ignored this fact. But it's not the unjustness of the media witch-hunt that upsets me. Rather, it's that state-school applicants may be deterred.

Everyone knows Oxbridge takes too few state-school pupils. Fewer people know that this is largely because too few of them apply. The image of Oxbridge as the preserve of well-heeled public schoolboys is alive and well, and it's stopping bright sixth-formers from applying.

The universities have, however belatedly, realised this, and are attempting to encourage state school applications; the Target Schools campaign, for example, sends undergraduates out to state schools to talk to sixth-formers. Such efforts are undermined by scare stories such as that of Laura Spence.

By misinterpreting her rejection, and blowing it out of proportion, the press and politicians have helped to maintain the very inequality they preach against.

Laura was one state school girl who tried and failed to get into Oxbridge. How many others didn't even try because they were scared off by her case?

Ellen Bennett is a second-year student at Cambridge


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