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.


  1. Very impressive blog certainly. Thanks for this helpful post.

    Interview Questions

  2. Thank you Jaylen. I'm pleased to say John Redwood has now published this comment on his blog.

  3. Thank you, Rebecca.

    Do you not think that there could be a danger of parents being discriminated against because of their high achievements ?

    What was the acceptance rate at Oxbridge of working class children under the grammar school system ?

    I understand what you are saying about matching (or better) grades but we are hearing about the education system generating exam passers rather than thinkers all the time.

    I am working class by the way. I failed my A levels (though I improved my education in adulthood) My boys are bright and well placed at a very good school.

    I'm afraid I can't teach them how to ski, ride horses, rugby, cricket or much about the arts to be honest (except guitar gradings)

    What you're saying should be to my children's advantage but I can see why Oxbridge select people with well rounded experience and social abilities.

    I bet they wouldn't ignore one such as a savant if she showed utter genius in a single subject though.

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    2. Further to that:

      An Oxbridge near-miss should get into another good university. My brother in-law earns six-figures as an executive at Gillette having graduated from Kingston Poly in engineering. Hopefully his children will get a good crack at Oxbridge.

      I'd like to point out that not all people shift class in one generational bound. For most, in fact, it is two generations removed.

      It can be a long path.

      Their children become middle class but it's then that the success story of social elevation is forgotten - they become viewed as part of the 'privileged' class blocking access to others.

      I genuinely fear the disincentivisation of parents who have striven to reach middle class status only to find that when they arrive they are taxed at 40% and find that they've hobbled their own children's chances to boot.

      As a society wishing to compete globally we must first show that competing locally pays off.

      Those socio-cultural ideals which Oxbridge look for ?

      Well clearly they know what they're doing because our elite universities are envied the world over.

    3. PPS - Bro' in-law's pa was a lorry driver.

  4. Thanks for all your thoughts Electro-Kevin.

    I'm going to take your example and mutate it to fit it to the issue here - I know I'm representing you wrongly but it's deliberate to bring to life the essence of what's going on so I hope you don't mind.

    So say you were a lorry driver and that you and your wife had no academic qualifications and that she had only ever worked part time as a cleaner. And say you had this ludicrously bright kid who studied incredibly hard and delivered a string of A*s at GCSE and was predicted the same at A-level. This kind of thing does happen and it happens from much more surprising circumstances than those I've just described.

    It would be entirely credible that this bright child shared your interested in the guitar but had never done any grades and maybe hadn't even play in a band very much because they'd been busy studying and working to earn a bit of cash.

    Now I, doing practice interviews with a group of students preparing for Oxbridge character, step into interviewer mode and ask your son to talk about his hobbies.

    Would it surprise you at all if your son looked unsure and just replied 'I play the guitar a bit?' How do you think that's going to compare with the kid who had lessons in their instrument, has grade 8, has been in orchestras and has taught younger kids and is confident in talking about all that?

    Now what I do at a practice interview is that I step out of character and mutate my personality so that your son sees me as a teacher they can relate to rather than as an interviewer. I put him at ease. I ask him to talk about a piece of music he cares about and to tell me why it's special and he begins to talk and to sound charismatic and interesting to work with and I am able to see how his brilliant mind works.

    But I know from long experience that my friends who are interviewing mainly don't have the skills to do that. It's not that they don't care, they do. They just haven't been made aware of the reality of what they're dealing with and been explicitly guided on how to see these kids at their best.

    It's absolutely irrelevant to say this is anything to do with discrimination. It is just about how to remove a barrier to a group that is currently accidentally discriminated against.

    Indeed that child will get into a good university and they will have a bright future. But our ruling elite will not get to mix with (and be shown up in exams by) the likes of your son at university and that is a great shame. It shouldn't be that way and no-one wants it to be that way but it is and we should look hard at why it is and whether it can be fixed.

    1. Firstly: that child would reach a good university if not (sadly) Oxbridge.

      Secondly: a good career would beckon regardless for someone of such outstanding ability and motivation.

      Thirdly: remaining grammar schools offer precisely the character building diversity of experience and imbue confidence within the social group which you are talking about.

      Finally: The icing on the cake - the presentational skills of the student - are obviously not being coached by the school whose vested interest (one would have assumed) would have been to score a hit with a prestigious Oxbridge acceptance. I really don't mean to be rude here.

      Are these students taken to one side and given role play training ?

      Or is there something else ?

      Is a pertinent, multi-dimensionalist level of awareness and self-assuredness really something which can be tacked on post adolescence ? I have to be honest. I am permanently hobbled at a social level from my upbringing at a sink school (probably similar to your own.) I will never be able to mix beyond my own level.

      However, I am confident that a student from a bog standard comp displaying some real genius would make it to Oxbridge and that the requirement for roundedness of character would become a secondary issue.

      My reasoning about lack of parental role modelling is outlined in a previous comment apropos my bro' in-law. My instincts are to champion the underdog too - but in a different way which doesn't compromise the system of reinforcing successful child rearing with more success.

      I'm all for making cuts elsewhere and creating more positions for those of truly outstanding talent and effort.

      We are all (so very many of us) disappointed with the way our education turned out. Ironically mine was because my teachers had great expectations of me and mistook my quiet and unassuming disposition as a sign of bookishness and intelligence (fools !) This in a school which more resembled a borstal than a seat of serious learning - so of course I stood out as a candidate to fill under subscribed A level classes.

      The grammar system would have been fairer on me.

      Why ?

      Because they would have rejected me. Effectively saying 'no' to my directionless motives (and low aptitude) to study high maths and physics and by now I would have been a well established plumber - or some such - and would probably no longer live in this country.

      Was I let down any less ?

      Whatever the misfortunes visited on those who few who miss high academia it pales into insignificance as to the iniquities suffered by many many more people now on the dole or selling hamburgers who were told that they were university material all in the name of equal opportunities.

      I've made a good fist of my own situation but that is largely down to being lucky enough to have emerged at a time when the job situation wasn't as desperately difficult as it is now. I feel intensely sorry for the next generation who have been promised so very much but are being offered so very little.

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  6. The nearest grammar school is 45 miles.

  7. There should be a widespread return to grammars. Their removal has resulted in fewer working class reaching top universities than before. This becoming the preserve of students whose parents have been able to afford private education.

  8. I don't mind what changes are made to the schools system provided the potential consequences of any changes are properly consulted with all the relevant stakeholders until we can be sure that those changes will deliver their intended outcomes (assuming those intended outcomes are reasonable which they usually are) at a cost we can afford and that there will not be significant negative consequences for the schools and students who are not directly benefiting from the changes.

  9. Back on the key topic here, my suggestion would be that the top universities be required to identify groups from society who are seriously under-represented (such as those from families on low incomes where neither parent has a university education) and to develop a system whereby when students from the target group are being interviewed, one of the interviewers speaks to a teacher at the student's schools who can brief them at to what they should expect to see in that students' performance at interview which would show them at their best.

    Where schools have no Oxbridge access programs the boundaries may be a little looser.

    If a tutor is interviewing for a couple of days I would not expect them to see more than one or two students in this category.

    If such a scheme didn't improve both what's going on and the public perception of what's going on sufficiently I would be surprised.