What I learnt from Laura Spence

18th August 2000 at 01:00
AS an American, albeit one who has worked in the English state school system for 20 years, there are times when I still feel like an outsider.

Such an occasion came this year when one of my A-level students, Laura Spence, hit the headlines. Her moment of fame came when Chancellor Gordon Brown seized on press reports of Oxford University's decision to turn her down for a place to study medicine.

An intense debate ensued, with much of it focusing on Oxford's poor record in attracting students from comprehensives. It was compared, unfavourably, with the success of Harvard University (where Laura will take up a scholarship this autumn) in attracting students from all walks of life.

I was frankly stunned by the intensity with which this very English debate about privilege was conducted. After all, failures of university admission selection processes are common enough. But this was Oxford, still seen by many as the ultimate gateway to a privileged life. Who it admits and rejects says a lot about the British.

As it unfolded I found myself, as Laura's headteacher, on the inside of a big media event. I found this fascinating but, at times, also upsetting.

At Monkseaton we found ourselves in the eye of a storm. Some of the reporting, though from a tiny minority of journalists, was intrusive and personal, often verging on the absurd (such as a hugely inflated estimate of our house's value).

Thoughout it all the support from staff was terrific, cracking jokes as Sky News fed a satellite cable link into the school office. Less welcome was the sad hate mail - fortunately easily outweighed by the fervent support we received from around the world.

How do I see the issues in retrospect? At the heart of it all, Oxford handled it badly. By revealing the confidential report on a candidate to the national press without permission they disgraced themselves. Interview notes, revealed later, clearly indicated prejudice against comprehensive school students (as well as misunderstanding the candidate's qualifications).

I have no idea why Oxford overreacted. It may be because they, yet again, suffered in comparison with international competitors such as Harvard. And it appeared to hit a raw nerve about discrimination.

It is hard to see exatly why Gordon Brown intervened. As you might expect from a politician, it seems to have been an attempt at wrong-footing the Conservative party, forcing them to argue for protecting entrenched privilege.

But as an American who was active in the civil rights movement, I see this as an issue not about admission, but about discrimination in a selection process. Many of the arguments mirrored those used to defend racism in employment back in the 1960s in the United States.

Laura's rejection was a story of an inadequate selection system. But, as the Commons education select committee has been hearing recently, bias against students from state schools is common in many universities. Why do we defend a system which perpetuates elitism and tolerates prejudice?

The positive outcomes from this affair are limited, but at least they are a step in the right direction. The Government has now decided, in effect, to bribe universities to become more representative of the communities they should serve, offering extra funds to those that reach targets based on students' background, postcode, ethnic origin and other factors.

This is a painfully slow way to address the problems, but it doesmake universities, which are public institutions after all, accountable for the students they select.

Another positive development is Cambridge's decision to introduce a new academic potential test for all students applying to do medicine or veterinary medicine. This requires no special preparation or knowledge and may be a model for admission to other courses.

But the fundamental problems surrounding university admissions are still unresolved. Better systems already exist, such as at Harvard - which uses a blind, standardised decision process to assess student potential, and takes other measures to reduce discrimination. These are all similar to selection procedures commonly used in employment to help prevent racial and gender prejudice.

Our admissions system is in a mess. While many students are being let down by selection procedures, the potential of others goes unrecognised. We must do better.

Paul Kelley is head of Monkseaton community high school in Whitley Bay. He grew up in Berkeley, California, and came to England at the age of 20

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