I Just Found My Favourite Rant In The 'Notes' Bit Of My Phone

In unedited form:

The newspaper tells me that 50% of Westminster pupils go on to Oxbridge, 40% of Etonians ditto. Cannot possibly say this is because they are intelligent, it’s also partly intensive coaching and better teaching, and surely it’s also partly because we tend to have a higher opinion of people with whom we can identify so of course they make a better impression at interview and…so it goes on. And I want to rant and get angry about this and swear that my kids are sodding well going to state school Just Because but actually, no. If they want that kind of education and they can get the bloody scholarship (or in the bizarre case that I can actually pay) they’re going to public school and taking every advantage they can get because sadly this is just how the world works and you can stand up and rail against it and end up twisted and bitter because being clever and ‘in the right’ gets you nowhere, or you can do your bloody utmost to run with the system if it’s going to get you to where you want to go. My mother looks at boarding-school-educated friends of my sister and me and thinks they’ve all been, to use a phrase that shouldn’t perhaps be interpreted so strongly in this case, psychologically damaged by the experience. But arguably, are C and I any better off after the years we had in school?

Thus ends the note. I’m not sure there’s much more that needs to be said. I think it’s terrible that a frankly disproportionate number of students at Oxbridge are privately educated, I think it’s terrible that a higher proportion of school leavers from public school make it into Oxbridge than the proportion of school leavers from a given state school or sixth form, I think it’s terrible that we’re still playing a postcode lottery so that my chances in leafy Home Counties southlands of going to a decent university were higher than they would have been had I come from Inner City Somewhere School. I am happy to accept that the average intelligence of pupils at any given private school is likely to be a little higher than at the local comprehensive but not so markedly that the percentage of those who go on to get into Oxbridge is several orders of magnitude greater. I do not understand how fifty percent of pupils at Oxbridge originate from fee-paying schools. And yet again this isn’t about Oxbridge, it’s just a useful marker because lots of statistics exist and are publicly available on this particular marker of educational success. (Such as my Eton/Westminster statistic, which got me so riled up).

What I’m really saying is, how is the state education system failing its pupils so badly? How is it that someone like me, who is as staunch a believer in public services as can be, who is otherwise so old-school left wing, is seriously worried about the hypothetical education of her hypothetical children? The rest of our public services are wonderful. The NHS may be slow and clunky and need a lot of improvement but I think what it tries to do, and does, quite successfully, is utterly visionary. If I had anything wrong with me, I would go straight to them. But as far as I’m concerned our country is failing to educate our children at all adequately. I sat in the back in French and German classes teaching myself becuase the classes moved so incredibly slowly. I was in express science otherwise I would have gone mad. I still can’t play any sport to a standard that isn’t purely laughable. Geography, History, Music – all, effectively, self-taught. Maths – I had a tutor, and I damn well got that A*. English, well, there’s an exception. My teacher was an utter hero. My sixth form was so big that when I stopped working at all, no-one noticed, no-one really realised how much I was letting myself down, and I scraped  by on doing my coursework assignments on all-nighters and somehow managed to blag my exams. Finally the Chemistry and Biology A Levels I got were actually largely self taught, in the end.

Who knows if I would have done better somewhere else. In all fairness I sabotaged myself for at least part of the time. And I won’t deny that along the line I did have some very good and wonderful and caring teachers, but I think that we were all, collectively, let down by the system. They couldn’t teach the way they wanted to teach, and we couldn’t learn.

And I’m not saying, oh, woe is me, because as it’s turned out I’m at the best university for my course and I am finally kind of doing myself justice on that score and I love where I am and oh look work experience *squeal*, so it’s not me that’s been let down. But it’s people I know and it’s people I never will know and it’s people who never will realise how much they might have got out of a degree they never even considered doing because no-one took the time to realise how bright they were.

It’s the fact that there are schools who are able to take average-to-bright kids, and, a few years later, send half of them on to Oxbridge and the rest on to a whole assortment of redbricks, whilst putting the same intake through a school down the road with less money and a strict curriculum and a whole host of bizarre targets and restrictions and tagging them with a slightly different label means that that same intake would be lucky to get 50% into universities in general, not just a specific two. It’s the injustice. If I’m born in this house someone pays for my schooling and I end up running hte country. If I’m born in the house down the line my parents believe (as well they should) that education should be a public service and all the local intelligent kids should go to the local comp in a sort of cohort and by and large that works, we all end up at university, somewhere. If I’m born in Darfur it’s a miracle if I get clean water. So I should quit complaining. It just doesn’t make sense.

Oh, and is anyone not in some way negatively affected psychologically by where they go to school?



Filed under Happenings, Life, Relationships, Society, University, World

27 responses to “I Just Found My Favourite Rant In The 'Notes' Bit Of My Phone

  1. “What I’m really saying is, how is the state education system failing its pupils so badly?”

    I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. Public schools offer a better education (they must, or parents wouldn’t pay to send their kids there). The “best” universities pick the pupils who do the best, so why on earth are we surprised that they take more students from good schools? Similarly, those schools are most accessable to well off men (and in the past that was much more likely to be white men), so why are we surpised that it is this group who does better? Eg all the fuss recently about the cabinet, well we want the most able people running the country, ta. When the education system is (or perhaps was) so biased to one group of people, why are people surprised when members of that group tend to enjoy more success?

  2. Laura

    I had a cracking time at school. It taught me lots of valuable lessons like how to stop your clothes smelling after a crafty fag in the loos, how to log on to MSN on the school laptops after they blocked it and that you can stretch your period out to missing two weeks of PE in a row (three, if you’ve got a male teacher). My school was, allegedly, an ‘outstanding’ state school, though where they got this information from I have no idea. I thought it was pretty decent – I was picked on slightly, mainly in a harmless way, for being ‘posh’ and a bit prone to crying in class, but other than that I liked it. I worked hard in English and History because I liked them, I dossed about in Media Studies because, well, it was Media Studies and they gave us laptops, I passed my Maths GCSE because I had a teacher who was fantastic and honest enough to tell me that I wasn’t good at it and gave me a list of the formulae I would need to learn and I failed to be inspired by science and sat at the back gossiping with my infinitely cleverer friends about…god knows what. We were chubby, 14 year old virgins.

    I did well at my school because I gave a shit. Not in equal measure about everything, but I was lucky enough to have parents who instilled in me a very strong work ethic. If you screw up, it’s your fault, you take responsibility. I think a lot of the problems with state schools is that they are in deprived areas where the PARENTS tend not to care about education – I had, generally, good teachers at Regent’s Park, but so often classes were disrupted by girls who just had no interest in education because they’d been brought up not to expect much from their future. But I worked hard and was pretty pleased with my results. It was only when I got to Sixth Form that I realised I had only done well for my school. Here were kids who’d got 12 A*s and WHAT THE FUDGE? did separate sciences?! And I had been proud of my 3A*s, 3As and a handful of Bs?! Still, being the competitive sort I chose to let that spur me on to do well. To apply to Oxford, and higher tier universities. I would NEVER have done that had I been kept in the same sort of education I had been used to. We’ll just keep quiet the fact that I ended up at Royal Holloway…

    I know Peter Symonds is a state sixth form. It’s one of the best in the country. It achieves far greater results than, say, £20,000+ a year Marlborough, where one of my friends went. But I’m also aware it’s in Winchester. The catchment area makes it a school for the, predominantly, affluent Hampshire middle classes. So it’s in principal an example of a great opportunity for a free education, but many of its pupils were ex-independent school anyway. Education is not equal – it’s dependent on money or postcode, often interlinked things.

    I want to send my children, should I have any, to independent schools, purely because they will be my children and I will want the best for them. I’m not sacrificing their future for ideals. It’s not fair, but I’m not going to deny my children their opportunities on the grounds of fairness.

    As for psychologically damaging kids – well, my dad doesn’t seem too bad for having gone to public school, but he does say it was slightly traumatic in ways. Although, he did go to a Navy-funded all-boys boarding school, so I don’t want to think about in what ‘ways’ he was traumatised.

    He did used to pick on Iain Duncan Smith though, which I always find quite amusing.

  3. Jenny

    The thing is, Dickie, what I’m also saying is that there are plenty of talented people full of potential who *do* do well despite the odds but who then don’t get places at the top universities and I want to know why that is – I didn’t refer to it so much in this post – I meant to make more of a point of it – but where I said, “it’s also partly because we tend to have a higher opinion of people with whom we can identify so of course they make a better impression at interview and…so it goes on”, well. That was a point I wanted to make more of. Public school educated posh white middle class male begets public school educated posh white male, insert hyphens where appropriate I cba.

    I worked hard at school but didn’t at sixth form so much because I no longer gave a shit, and had my teachers not been responsible for hundreds of others as well then perhaps someone would have noticed and who knows how different the last four years might have been. I know my friend A was heading off on a similar ‘snit’ when he was doing his A-levels but, being at a far smaller and more academic school, he was brought up short. He should have been top of the class, why wasn’t he, what wasn’t going right for him? A timely word with a few members of staff and he pulled up his socks and got his head screwed back on and came out with the A-levels he deserved. I… didn’t. Or rather, I deserved what i got for hte work I did but I do still feel that had I been better looked out for, as I know a lot of privately educated friends were, I might have been coerced into working a bit harder and who knows, sorting myself out years before it ended up being a real problem.

    Yes, I am blaming my education and my experiences at school for my depression. Not wholly, but in a big way. And i know I’m not alone in this.

    PS is very good (I didn’t go there). But I also got the impression that it was weirdly, unhealthily cliquey, and that I wouldn’t have been happy there. But then there’s no pleasing some…!!

    As for ‘psychologically damaging’, it’s not just public schools. I was not happy at my school and I only really realised it once I was happy (well, happiness of a kind). I was isolated and bullied and although I can tell some hilarious stories involving onions, pasta salad, umbrellas, glasses, and underclothes, and the time I nearly got the blame for setting the girls’ loos on fire, they’re not actually as funny as they sound.

    My school, incidentally, was supposedly very good too. And I got ten A*s there, and would have got more had I been able to take a few more GCSEs on the sly. But, and I really don’t want to sound arrogant when I say this, I would have got those grades anywhere, being the person I was at the time, and being as isolated as I was. It wasn’t as if I had a social life to distract me from doing the work in the first place. Not that there was that much work to do.

    My kids aren’t *definitely* going to independent school. It depends on a whole number of things – where we live and how well off we are, obviously, but more importantly, who they are and what suits them best and what they think they want. I will give them as much information and guidance and help as I possibly can but I do think that every child should have a say in how they choose to be educated. Not a total free reign, because I don’t think I knew what was best for me until pretty recently, or I would have done a whole host of htings differently, but I’m not going to send them to public school and bugger the consequences.

  4. Laura

    I have no idea what kind of mentalists seem to think PS was unhealthily cliquey. It was grand, as far as I could see. Nothing at all like Mean Girls.

    I think school is meant to be shit. I mean…you’re going through puberty whilst being trapped in the same building five days a week. That’s going to make you feel a bit doolally.


    I guess I was lucky and didn’t find it *that* traumatic.

  5. Laura

    Also, I was given a say in how I was educated. I chose RPS over KES. Biggest regret of my life. I’m sorry, kids don’t know a lot at 11.

  6. Kids at public school do better because they get their hands held. At the end of the day you have to put in work if you want to get good grades. That whole system is all about hands holding, both up and including Oxbridge style teaching. If you can’t motivate yourself someone else does it for you, that’s why the system works, because it takes away your required autonomy and self-motivation. I don’t think that level of dependency is something anyone should envy. I know people – several – who come from places like these who went to normal universities and struggled, even dropped out, simply because they were incapable of looking after themselves. Laura’s right, you need a good work ethic and a sense of responsibility for your results, no matter what they are.

  7. “there are plenty of talented people full of potential who *do* do well despite the odds but who then don’t get places at the top universities and I want to know why that is”

    We’re talking different definitions of “doing well”, I guess. Doing well at a public school means lots of A*s. Doing well at a school with crap teachers might mean getting a mixture of *s, As and Bs. But which CV looks better?

    And maybe kids from public schools come across better in an interview? For the most part I’d be surprised if there really is a conspiracy or sorts to keep out the yobbos who went to “normal” schools, I think on the whole it’s just that state schools aren’t as good as public schools.

    I think the fundamental issue is that a lot of schools just aren’t good enough; they don’t do enough to challenge the brighter kids, or to help the less bright kids. And that’s quite tragic.

  8. Laura, did you not notice the Varley/Upper Varley against the rest-of-the-world shit? I had that quite heavily.

    I shifted between friendship groups throughout my first year because I never quite ‘fit’ into any group. Maybe that says more about the friends I picked than anything else, but I did find it cliquey, to a great extent.

    Back to the state/public+university thing: statistically speaking, 50% of people here in Cam went to independent schools. Equally, (despite various negative experiences of state education) I would maintain that I would rather send my children to a state school and support them at home than take them out of the state education. The only way it’s ever going to improve is if the children with more supportive parents, the middling-to-bright (or maybe brilliant) children stay in the state system. Otherwise those at the top of the state system remain isolated and the school just cannot improve.

    Also, I personally think that the money that goes into private education could be better spent in the state system, and I don’t think that ‘excellence would suffer’ if every school was a state school. It could, and can, be done.

    And I got 11A*s, 2As and an ASLevel B, but actually I think that was because the GCSE’s that I took weren’t particularly difficult… Nor were AS/A Levels, really, apart from Latin. So yeah, whilst I was largely self-taught in most of my subjects, that was just because the general speed of the class was too slow, and I think that doesn’t necessarily mean I should have gone to a better/private school, I just think that (like I believe some American schools do) they could’ve just had a specific ‘Gifted and Talented’ room, and bunged me in there for the lessons that went too slowly.

    Which actually is what sort of happened, because I just used my ‘position’ as editor of the school magazine to claim lessons off every once in a while, and skived the others.

    And I got molested in both the library and the spanish cupboard, but we don’t talk about that.

  9. Jenny

    Just a quick one – no, I’m not talking about a ‘conspiracy’ to keep the ‘yobbos’ out. I’m just talking about how kids from public schools are trained to interview far better (I gather), their teachers devote a lot of time to preparing them to get in, and at my school… there was a series of talks on getting into Oxbridge and that was deemed generous. I wrote my own personal statement. My parents gave me a mock interview. I then decided not to do that subject, never mind, so it’s neither of surprise or concern to me that I didn’t get in.

    Worse still, I’m talking about how subconsciously tutors will warm more to posh white boys merely because, and they can’t help it, they are posh white boys themselves. That’s just how our minds work, a lot of the time. If you’re an Oxbridge academic and you’re interviewing someone with dreadlocks and a lipring and a strong Brummie accent, or whatever, it’s going to be hard to see past that, hwoever hard you try, becuase it won’t fit in with your image of what a successful applicant looks like.

  10. Hmm true, for some people part of it may be down to picking people like them. I don’t think it’d be a significant contributor to the overall statistics though – or rather I’d be incredibly surprised if it was. I think what you say about public school kids being better prepared for the selection procedure may well be more important. And so we come back to the idea that other schools are failing their pupils by not preparing them to the same standard.

    Like I said, is it a surprise that the better-prepared students who have better results get picked for the most competitive places at universities? I don’t think so.

  11. Laura

    Clare – I was aware that there was a ‘divide’, I guess, but I simply saw that as different groups of people hanging out in different places, rather than a big social gulf. Yes I spent most of my lunch breaks in…oh what was it called?…Paul Woodhouse? The main common room bit. That didn’t mean that, come class, I would like, totally refuse to speak to people who hung out anywhere else. No. What utter bullshit that would be. There may have been a slight divide but you get that in most schools…it certainly wasn’t *that* bad. It was definitely worse at school.

    I miss Symonds. And school. Uni is bollocks. But hey – I’ve got the substances to keep me going here at least.

  12. Flix

    Life isn’t fair. That’s life.

    The world needs better teachers.

  13. Jenny

    Life isn’t fair, no. But that sounds to me like an excuse for giving up. If you have a welfare state, you have a welfare state because you believe that everyone regardless of socioeconomic status or class has the right to a good education, decent healthcare, etc. And if you believe that everyone has the right to a good education then you should do your damndest to provide it such that there isn’t a yawning gulf between what you can expect if you’re at an inner city comprehensive compared to what you can expect if you’re able to pay for something better. Hell, there shouldn’t be a yawning gulf between what C and I got (which was in many ways a good education, for what it was) and what we would have got had we stayed in London and gone to one of our local comps near Tower Hamlets. And you, the government, have no excuse for failing us so spectacularly when if you look at any other developed european country – the ones we aspire to be, the Scandinavian countries, Germany, etc – they really don’t have a particularly large private sector. They produce pupils with a far better grasp of more or less any given subject by a particular age. They teach English such that their fifteen-year-olds can fend for themselves here in the UK whilst my German is so poor that I can probably buy a handful of Kartoffeln or Tomaten or something but past that, no-one really understands me – and I was ‘good’ at German. And French.

    I’m afraid, basically, that you can’t just sweepingly say that life isn’t fair and leave it at that, when the whole point of giving a state education to all is to try and make life fairer, and when there is plenty of proof in the world that you can do so much better than this.

    However the world certainly needs better teachers. Here’s to a new generation of’em.

  14. “I’m just talking about how kids from public schools are trained to interview far better (I gather), their teachers devote a lot of time to preparing them to get in, and at my school… there was a series of talks on getting into Oxbridge and that was deemed generous.” – Not necessarily. The only additional training they get (this is based on Winchester, and I may not have all the facts right) is a life-long thing. From the age of 8, the boys (and it IS boys) are given a very competitive education, huge resources and brilliant teachers. So they have that advantage. But in addition (and this is not an official ‘training’ or anything, it just happens) they are expected all the way through to talk to and relate well and politely to any adult they come across. And then the same extends to people their own age (as far as possible; kids can be more judgemental…) And, I believe, that at meal-times at Winchester there was a sort of rotation-system as to who sat with the senior teachers. (This may now be verging on imagination on my part, but I remember W saying something like this) which means that they routinely get practice at talking politely and feigning interest (or being genuinely interested and expressing that) in the things that a near-perfect stranger/school official has to say. So then of course when they get to interview they have the confidence and the savoir-faire not to be taken aback by it and to express themselves well. They also have the continuing advantage that the vast majority of their schoolfellows in the year above will be at those redbricks/Oxbridge, so when they go to visit them they know what to expect.

    It’s a life-skills thing. It wouldn’t work in a state school because state schools don’t work like that. Teachers, for example, do not eat their evening meal with their pupils. And can you imagine Mr. Poole bringing a visiting dignitary (?!) to lunch in the school hall?! Not a good spectacle, I’m going to be honest.

    And I don’t think the tutors actually *do* ‘warm’ to someone who is a ‘posh white boy’; the majority of supervisors here (particularly for English, so I don’t know about the rest of the subjects) and the ones who do the interviewing are *not* posh white boys themselves. And they’re so practised at interviews that they get (usually, I would hope) relatively good at seeing past the dreadlocks and the accent.

    And they *really* don’t like arrogance. Which is why some people who wander in and behave as though they really, really know what they’re doing and probably don’t need to be here but Mummy and Daddy would be so proud… might not stand in as good a stead as someone who is the first from their family to apply for University and the first in their school to get an interview… But it doesn’t always work like that. So I don’t know.

    But I wouldn’t say necessarily that it’s down to special training or inherent prejudice. It’s more to do with who’s better at expressing themselves, and that usually tends to be the rahs because they’ve been at schools which encourage that. And until there’s some sort of overhaul of the entire system, I think that imbalance will continue…

    (she says, bringing quasi-radical politics and a large amount of BS into it as usual)

  15. [Oh, and Oxford is CLEARLY worse than Cambridge. I just have to say that for local pride…]

  16. Laura

    You want to know why Scandinavian countries do so well? It’s all to do with numbers, frankly. Let’s take Norway for example – excellent school system. My housemate went to private school in Bergen, but that was because it was a specialist music school. Most kids in Norway are state educated to a very high standard. They can be. You know why?

    Norway has a population of only around 4.8 million people. They have a stable economy and high wages (with high taxes). They have so much more money to plough into everything, in a low and sparsely populated nation, than we do over here.

    The only way we can get our education system up to Scandinavian standards is if we find a big pot of gold buried somewhere. We just don’t have the resources for that kind of system.

    I can’t explain Germany. Germany blows my mind.

  17. Jenny

    You have a point about Scandinavia. I might learn Norwegian and emigrate.

    And yes, Clare, I suppose you’re probably right. They’ve just lived differently. Before I came to university I had hardly ever in my life had an intelligent conversation, I swear, except within the family – so I just wasn’t used to that kind of debate, and it’s only since spending more time with e.g. my uncle T, or A and various friends at uni that I’ve really got better at any of that (that and through writing this blog). So if what you’re saying is true – that W’s experience at Winchester was that he got a lot more of that kind of dialogue with real grown-ups with real opinions and serious knowledge, over dinner, far earlier on in his life, well. Heck, in my Philosophy class, at A-level, we spent more time using utilitarianism to justify gang rape, supergluing apples to the ceiling, and rubbishing Plato’s cave, whilst my classmates rolled camberwell carrots under the desks and I drew complicated pictures of people and trees and bottles and parties I’d been to and so on.

    Yeah, dinner at school was an ordeal, at least in the hall. The floor was literally coated in chips, chewing gum, crisps, wrappers, you name it. It was pretty sordid, to be honest.

    I start to feel like, Clare, if ours was a ‘good’ school, what on *earth* are the bad ones like?

    And, good bullshitting 😛


  18. Flix

    It’s all so interlinked. I did well at school because my parents made sure I went to the best places for my education. I come from a white, middle class family. That is what I was born into; I can’t help that. It’s not my fault that my parents can afford to help me out at university, they’ve worked hard to be able to offer me the chances that I’ve had and I’m aware that I’m very very lucky in the circumstances I’ve grown up in and the genes I’ve been blessed with and because of my own upbringing, hopefully I will be able to offer the same wealth of opportunities to my children. It’s the way the world works and you’ve got to make the most of the cards you’ve been dealt.

    I never had any intention of going to Oxbridge, and it annoys me how much emphasis is placed on getting into those two institutions. Other universities are good too! I’m sure part of the reason that posh, white boys go to Oxford is not because of intelligence, necessarily, but because it’s entirely suited to the way of life they are already familiar with, and it works for them and that’s fine. But it’s not what is best for everyone.

  19. Jenny

    No, I know – as I said, it’s just a useful marker for how we approach education in this country and who gets what opportunities. I applied for Cambridge when I was going to do Philosophy but I never would have considered Oxbridge (in fact never did) when I moved on to wanting to do medicine or indeed biomeds as I ended up doing.

    You do have to make the most of the cards you’ve been dealt, and you have to make sure you can deal the best hand possible to your children one way or the other, but it doesn’t strike me as fair that some peoples’ hands through no fault of their own are all jokers and twos.

    Meanwhile I can hear something weird and interesting happening out hte front of hte house so I’m going to get dressed and check it out.

  20. “Heck, in my Philosophy class, at A-level, we spent more time using utilitarianism to justify gang rape, supergluing apples to the ceiling, and rubbishing Plato’s cave, whilst my classmates rolled camberwell carrots under the desks and I drew complicated pictures of people and trees and bottles and parties I’d been to and so on.”

    To be honest, I think that’s an acceptably use of philosophy classes… I did spend most of the Spring/Easter (Jan-March term?!) last year avoiding french classes because they were desperately dull. This being A-Level. I’m not sure what my point is other than that if I’d thought of supergluing an apple to the ceiling (if I’d been able to *reach* the damn ceiling) that would have enlivened my life no end…

    I *love* Germany. And Italy, although socially-speaking it’s a fair bit less good than Germany. If I could combine the two into some sort of superstate, that would make me very happy indeed.

    Flix, the whole Oxbridge thing. It really depends on the subject. For example, the Natural Sciences course at Cambridge is renowned the world over and with good reason. But people flock here to do medicine, even though the med school isn’t so great. The History department here is currently the best in the world; the structure of the teaching system is such that they do, I’m afraid, still mostly deserve their reputation. On the other hand, the only reason either of the two institutions can provide this standard of education is because they’re both so fantastically wealthy that they can do pretty much anything. I mean, Trinity College, Cambridge, now owns the O2 arena, for god’s sake. After Harvard, and just before MIT, Cambridge is the place to go. On the other hand, UCL is now higher in the world stakes of universities than Oxford. So age/wealth is not always the best indicator. Although I believe UCL is the third or fourth oldest University in Britain so it’s still pretty old. They do deserve their reputation, I’m afraid that’s the case, and I’m sorry if it is. (god, I sound like a public schoolboy defending *his* education…)

    On the other hand, I absolutely agree that there is a ridiculous emphasis placed on Oxbridge in this country. The PR woman at my college gathered all of us who got offers together for a huge photoshoot and a brief stint on local TV, because (and I quote) “you give our college a reason to exist.” Bollocks. As far as I’m concerned, a state comprehensive sixth form shouldn’t exist solely for the highest, lucky few, who would have got there anyway because of their genes/brains/parents/curiosity/determination. The emphasis being on “lucky”, because it is, to an extent, an applicationary lottery. The emphasis in state education should be on improving the education and chances for everyone, probably most particularly for those at the other end of the scale, rather than reinforcing the problems. So I get (paradoxically, and hypocritically) angry at the glorification of two universities that only are so revered because they’re, frankly, old enough to have gained that wealth and reputation.

    And ‘poshwhiteboys’ (sorry W) go here partly because of familial expectations, or the expectations of those in their school. W didn’t apply anywhere else, for crying out loud.


  21. “The emphasis in state education should be on improving the education and chances for everyone”

    Agreed. I think it’s a problem how the emphasis seems to have shifted onto more and more people getting degrees. Degrees aren’t suited to everyone or to every subject; in fact I reckon they probably only suit a minority of people. So saying that we want 50% of people to go to uni is – IMO – only going to harm most people. The emphasis should be on people doing what’s best for them; if for some people that means leaving school at 16 to go and do an apprenticeship in plumbing or whatever, then in my opinion that’s just as respectable as someone who decides to stay in education for years to do a PhD.

  22. Flix

    I wasn’t saying they don’t deserve their reputation, just that, in as much as I can gather, Oxbridge is a very specific way of learning and differs from other universities in many respects and in some ways is quite a sheltered way of living so it’s not the path for everyone, even if they possess the required academic credentials. I’ve no doubt they are the best in their teaching for a wide array of subjects, as well as the vast opportunities in extra-curricular activities and I am in awe of any person who manages to a) get a place and b) survive their time there. In my school newsletter, it was “And X number of people got into Cambridge and Y into Oxford” okay, but what about the Z who got into university full stop. Don’t they deserve a mention? And the fact that people feel like failures if they get rejected, and how clever pupils are pushed towards Oxbridge as if it’s the only option for intelligent people, rather than just one of many choices and with many more factors to consider within those choices than just whether the university is top of league tables. It may have the best teaching or research or most money and facilities or whatever. But there’s so more to university than that. If you’re happy there, CRM, that’s great. It’s just not for me, personally.


  23. Photolosopher

    “…people feel like failures if they get rejected, and clever pupils are pushed towards Oxbridge as if it’s the only option for intelligent people, rather than just one of many choices” – yes. I went to a state school in London, and ended up applying to Oxford mostly because of explicit pressure from my sixth form and implicit pressure from my family. I knew, at some instinctive level, that Oxbridge was not the right choice for me, but the conviction of all the authority figures around me that it was clearly ‘the best’ threw me into confusion, and this (combined with the pressure to get in) caused me to feel quite miserable for the entire university-application period.

    Luckily, they rejected me, so it wasn’t really an issue :p but in all seriousness, had I been given an offer, I’m certain that I would have felt that there was no other choice but to accept it, regardless of whether I wanted to or not. And it might seem ridiculous to claim that I didn’t want to go to one of the top two universities in the country, but I suspected that it wasn’t an environment that I could be happy in, or feel that I truly belonged to. I wanted independence and ‘real life’ experience from wherever I went to university, and I don’t think that the insular nature of the Oxbridge institutions really allows for that as much as other places do.

    I agree with Flix in that there is more to a university than its academic status, and that there shouldn’t be so much emphasis placed on going to Oxford and Cambridge over and above other perfectly good universities that may even be, in some fields, preferable. The reputation of Oxbridge (however well-deserved) does not necessarily make it the best choice for everyone, and we need to remember that it is just that – one choice, among many. xxx

  24. mnyeh… that’s the side of Oxbridge-mania in sixth-form admissions tutors/schools etc that I dislike. It shouldn’t be the only option and it shouldn’t be waved above the rest in the way that it is.

    I’ve got friends here who would probably be coping far, far better if they were somewhere else where the pressure was less intense. There isn’t really time here to take care of yourself properly, you have to keep moving. It’s probably the same at most good universities, only the terms are longer so I gather it’s all a bit more spread out.

    There are good sides and downsides to every system and every institution. And yet admissions tutors don’t take that into account when encouraging people to apply to certain places.

    A friend of mine now at Oxford did have that dilemma, photolosopher. He got pooled to a different college (I don’t fully understand how the oxford pooling system works…) and to a slightly different course, which he wasn’t so keen on, and for a long time dithered between rejecting that offer and going somewhere else for the course he wanted, or going to Oxford. He eventually plumped for Oxford and is very happy there, but I think in the majority of cases people will be (hopefully) happy, or at least content, wherever they end up.

    I just get kind of irritated sometimes when people are scathing of Oxbridge. I find it as infuriating as the next person the emphasis that is placed on it, but I still feel lucky to be here and would encourage anyone who wants to to apply because I do think it is, largely, worth it. And the more non-poshwhiteboys who apply, the (hopefully) better the balance will be!

  25. Photolosopher

    Yes, if I had gone to Oxford then it also would have meant compromising my choice of degree, as the specific course that I wanted to do wasn’t available there. A lot of people around me seemed to be of the opinion that this was a perfectly reasonable sacrifice to make, if it meant that they could say that their student/daughter/granddaughter was going to Oxford… Another reason why it didn’t particularly appeal to me. Anyway, I’m now at another university, on the course that I wanted, and getting on quite well with it (mostly), which is great 🙂

    I don’t like the glory-hunting nature that Oxbridge seems to bring out in people, or the way that it is constantly portrayed as being objectively and definitively the best choice for anyone wanting to go to university – but, equally, I don’t like the kind of inverse-snobbery, Oxbridge-bashing for the sake of it, which I know also goes on and seems a bit too much like misguided bitterness. I agree that, if people from any background really truly want to apply, then they should, and there is no reason why they shouldn’t be happy there. My personal experience just happens to be tainted by coercion and self-doubt!

  26. One of the problems with private schools, and to a lesser extent grammar schools, is that by their very existence they do harm to the rest of the schooling system. If you’re a fantastic teacher, you have to be one hell of a martyr to turn down the money and working environment a private school can give you to teach in a tough inner-city comp where even the school leadership find it difficult to mask their contempt for your subject.

    Things like league tables just help to enhance this stratification by creating a feed-back loop that essentially condemns some schools and the pupils within them to be terrible, and it makes it awfully difficult to break out.

    Also, yeh, the focus on Oxbridge is ridiculous. I too am being ludicrously partisan, but Imperial College is consistently ranked at about 3rd in the country, has a fantastic international reputation, and brilliant graduate prospects. The highest average graduate salary for any course is Computer Science students at Imperial; they can expect an average pay of £36k, straight out of uni! I completely did the wrong subject. I also hear that Oxbridge recruits an awful lot of postgrad students from Imperial just because so many good-quality science graduates are churned out.

  27. Jenny

    Sometimes I rather wish that I thought I’d be any good at teaching. I really don’t think I would though. If I did think that then perhaps I’d seriously consider teaching, and then perhaps I’d do the tough-inner-city comp thing. But there’s no point in me doing that if I’d just be yet another easily-bullied shambolic non-teacher who just wastes the time of pupils who really don’t care anyway.

    Oxbridge is excellent, of course, for a lot of subjects. It just shouldn’t be placed on a pedestal. For my subject my university is third or fourth in the country as far as I’m aware. In all fairness I haven’t checked the league tables since I started (why would I?) although I will now…

    Yes – overall we rank 3rd for my subject, after Cambridge and Oxford (although at the former I’d have to do NatSci and at the latter, Biology, I believe); fourth for research after Manchester, Dundee and Oxford (Cambridge comes tenth after the London universities and York and Surrey (though not in that order)); ninth for entry standards (thankfully for me – although I didn’t apply for any of the other places that topped that list so perhaps not so much and anyway I actually did pretty well before university; on this list obviously Oxbridge is first followed by, well, all the redbricks); weirdly about a millionth for graduate prospects (I couldn’t be bothered to count, it’s actually mroe like twentieth; Oxbridge is higher in the list but not at the top); fourth for student satisfaction (where Cambridge is ninth and Oxford is 26th) and third overall (no, I don’t know how that works either – I assume that different factors are weighted differently and don’t necessarily all appear in the table. ComplexAlgorithmBlah. Or because it’s consistently *near* the top whereas other universities jump about a bit. Or something).

    Anyway, look, basically, as I’ve just proven by this exercise – a) league tables are a bit silly anyway because goodness knows how they work; (b) there are many disparate factors in this particular debate – different teaching styles, research and teaching budgets, approaches to pastoral and academic care of students, libraries, lectures, seminars, labs, tutorials, and so on. If I wasn’t me perhaps I wouldn’t get on so well here as I do – this year, academically, I’ve been very much left to my own devices and my father is railing about this but actually I’ve done OK. Next year I’ll spend a lot more time in labs and tutorials and hopefully that means I’ll do better. I know a girl who got turned down by Cambridge but her rejection letter explained that that wasn’t because she wasn’t bright enough but simply because they didn’t feel she would do at all well given their style of teaching for her subject. It’s such a personal thing that really, what a bunch of numbers and surveys and statistics say isn’t perhaps as important as we all seem to think. It’s only a factor, and I don’t think it’s the most important one. And then of course we’re all swayed by the ancient colleges and the worn down stones and the cathedrals and those big libraries with books chained to the shelves and people swanning about intoning latin graces and flapping about in big-ol’ gowns and sub-fusc and using weird, archaic and deeply localised slang.

    I really hope that when I have children, if they come to apply for university – if that’s what they want – then they feel that they can apply for universities based on what they think that particular university can do for them, and not what they think their parents, teachers etc expect and what they should be aiming for based on their intelligence.

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