Sunday, 26 February 2012

Les Ebdon, Vince Cable and Oxbridge Access

I’ve been working hard with students from tough backgrounds on Oxbridge access for the last 12 years. Every year we’ve prepared groups of state school students for interviews. These groups have always contained middle class state school students who have a professional parent and who have plenty of extra curricular activities to talk about and the personal confidence to talk about them. They have also contained students from disadvantaged backgrounds. No child from the latter group has ever been offered a place at Oxbridge from our cohorts even though their results are often better than the students from the first group while plenty from the first group have got in and this result is replicated again and again in the experiences of those I talk to.
In essence the problem is this. Oxbridge give a small amount of credit in their scoring criteria for an applicant coming from a low social status background. But it doesn’t balance out the points that students will lose because they will have few extra-curricular interests and they will not have the confidence to express themselves well at interview. If you did practice Oxbridge interviews with students as I do you would find, in general, that you have ranked their performance at interview by the educational and professional attainments of their parents. The effect disappears when the interview is removed and these students are accepted by and excel at the top universities which do not interview.
Now I well know that current Tory thinking is to take these students and put them into top public schools but this thinking does not understand that these students come from a large pool of students like them and it is virtually impossible to predict which deliver incredible results at A-level until they are around 17.
These students would fly at Oxbridge. There is no question about their academic ability. They are just not getting conditional offers. It simply is the case that until they leave home children are to a certain extent prisoners to their backgrounds. This effect disappears when you put them in the variety of wider company you find at Oxbridge. They don’t need to go to a school away from home (and it is dubious to whether we want to take them out of their communities as in a valuable part of what they offer to the mix at Oxbridge is their being from those communities) they just need a chance to get into top universities. We all want them to be there. We think Cameron and co. would have been better off had they been at Oxford with, for example, the straight A*s student I helped to prepare for an interview for law at Oxford this year whose dad isn’t around an whose mum is a teaching assistant who’s just had her salary cut by 20%. She was completely brilliant. She just didn’t know how to show it yet.
The problem is not that Oxbridge interviewers are prejudiced or that they don’t care. It’s just that they don’t see the detail of the reality of the vast, vast, differences between the backgrounds of two children from the same state school – one of whom is from a professional middle class family and the other of whom is from a disadvantaged background and they need to be heavily nudged to properly understand what they are dealing with. They don’t want to believe they need to face this because they don’t want to think they are doing anything wrong.
This issues has been discussed many times at consultations until the attending representative from Oxbridge understand it. However their insight does not get disseminated to the huge group of interviewing tutors who still fail to see the difference between a state school child who has parents from a university educated professional family and one who is not.
This is not about social re-engineering or anything ideological. It is about recognising that children from backgrounds where no-one in their family has been to university and the family income is very low are being prevented from getting to Oxbridge because the system is judging them not on their academic ability but on their lack of wider interests and their inability to present themselves well at interview.
The solution is that when top universities are interviewing students from disadvantaged backgrounds they need to probe their academic ability only and they may need to ‘work with them’ a little more at interview to help them put themselves across. 
The solution has been obvious for a very long time but it has not happened. Therefore there needs to be extra pressure.