Friday 27 October 2017

Follow you, Follow me: role models and ivory towers

It's not been a good week for Oxford University. A damming response to a freedom of information request by Labour MP David Lammy revealed a shocking and growing lack of social and ethnic diversity in their undergraduate intake, suggesting that an institution that has always been seen as a bastion of the privileged establishment is becoming increasingly just that. The university, along with its counterpart Cambridge, and indeed other top universities, appears to be helping those already in the upper echelons of society to tighten their grip on the top jobs, to the exclusion of those less fortunate than themselves. Click here for the story.

Of course this is nothing new. Reports condemning Oxbridge and its self-evident lack of social and ethnic diversity appear with depressing regularity, giving ammunition to those who wish to snipe at these ancient universities, so admired and respected throughout the world, yet so often the subject of criticism or ridicule at home. This saddens me: I am a proud Oxford graduate, yet feel that I earned the right to that status rather than being born to it, and I am also proud that a small number of students whom I taught over a 36 year career followed in my footsteps, not because they were privileged and educated at a good school, but because they were highly intelligent and well-motivated students who were encouraged and, I hope, inspired by a teacher who believed that they would enjoy and benefit from such a uniquely challenging education. More of that later.

Now of course I am biased, so if you think that Oxbridge is a self-serving ivory tower, perpetuating the injustices and inequalities of society, you might as well stop reading here and resent me.

My alma mater: Exeter College Oxford
But if you can bear with me, let me defend my alma mater. (“There he goes, spouting Latin, point proved....”)

I honestly believe that to attack Oxbridge is to miss the point. Oxford and Cambridge are elite universities, now more than ever. They compete at an international level with other leading universities and can only sustain their position and reputation if they recruit the best students from the UK and beyond. And if the best students (albeit judged on narrow academic criteria) come from a very limited sector of society, arguably that's society's fault, not Oxbridge’s. They can only select from those who apply, and it is a self-evident truth that high achievers are more likely to come from well-to-do families, top schools, and very often both.

That doesn't make it right, and it doesn't mean there isn't a problem, which could, to an extent, be tackled - for example by continued investment in imaginative outreach work. However, I feel that to criticise Oxbridge is easy but unfair. They are academically highly selective, and there are far more applicants than places. So they choose the best applicants, wherever they come from. But in my view, they do so without prejudice or favouritism: they pick the best, who all-too-often are not from lower socio-economic groups or ethnic minorities. Therein lies the real problem, and we shouldn't blame Oxbridge for that.

My feeling - and it's no more than a feeling, so I will willingly stand corrected if others want to counter with hard facts – is that Oxford has become far more socially exclusive than it was in the 1970s when I was there. I was at Exeter College, one of the university's oldest, a college which visually fulfils every cliché: the honey coloured walls, the manicured quadrangle, the ornate chapel, the hogwartsesque dining hall. Yet in the 70s it was a pretty down-to-earth place, and for this lad from “oop North” it was challenging, mind-broadening but not intimidating. My friends and fellow undergraduates there spoke with accents from places like Bradford, Manchester, Oldham, Devon, Wiltshire, London, and Wolverhampton and were mainly state educated. Posh public schoolboys were there, but seemed like an endangered species, a harmless source of amusement to those of us who were of the real world.

So if I am right, why has this happened over the past forty years? Why has Oxford become more socially exclusive over a period in which, to some extent at least, society at large has quite rightly become more meritocratic and egalitarian and less deferential to the old school tie?

I fear that the answer lies much further back in the educational system. Oxbridge is not recruiting young people from less privileged backgrounds because those young people are left behind way before they get near applying to university. The fault lies in a system which does not support and inspire young people from all backgrounds to aim high and reach for the glittering prizes. The quest to raise standards for the many over recent decades has arguably meant that the interests of the most talented get neglected. For all their faults, the free state grammar schools which flourished in the mid twentieth century, not least in the industrial North, gave some children from all backgrounds a ladder and the encouragement to climb it.

No, I am not calling for a return to grammar schools. They had many faults, serving only a relative few based on a harsh and imperfect selection method and left many on the scrapheap. However, one of the great features of the grammar school that I and many others attended was the influence of the many talented, charismatic and inspirational teachers who served as role models for the likes of me. And guess what, many of them were Oxbridge educated: I recently came across a staff list from the early seventies from my old school, and was struck by how many of my teachers were Oxbridge graduates. Highly intelligent yet grounded men, who taught entertainingly and intuitively, each in his own style, free from the need to follow detailed schemes of work, to meet aims and objectives and to meet performance criteria. The best lessons were the ones that digressed wildly from the matter in hand, stretching the mind and arousing true intellectual curiosity. I applied to Oxford for a lot of reasons, but strongest among them was that I had a really good and inspirational French teacher at my (free, state) grammar school who was an Oxford graduate. He was clearly very clever, but also very funny, and he used to regale us with stories of his university days. I wanted to be like him, and was lucky enough to be able to fulfil that ambition. I know several of my friends from those days who applied to university for the same sort of reason. 

I fear that such people do not come into teaching these days, and if they do their talent is subjugated to the need to tick boxes in pursuit of Ofsted criteria. Why would an Oxbridge graduate come into teaching, where pay is capped, professional freedom and common sense is constantly undermined by policy and bureaucracy, when they could earn far more for less intellectual effort in another profession?

Perhaps instead of demanding that Oxbridge fiddle with their selection procedures and entry requirements, we should look at ways of encouraging more Oxbridge and other high-calibre graduates into teaching, where perhaps they can demystify Oxbridge life and act as mentors and role models. And when they become teachers, perhaps we could allow them rather more freedom and respect. If we must have academies, how about an Oxbridge sponsored academy?

Follow You, Follow Me, as Genesis said in 1978. Role models can be very powerful. 

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