UK Politics

Lay off Oxford and fix the state education system

BY Ben Kelly | tweet thescepticisle   /  23 May 2018

There has been another round of Oxford bashing today in Britain. David Lammy MP fired the starting pistol and then came the barrage of tweets from tedious, virtue-signalling lefty liberals who wanted to criticise their old university while letting everyone know they went there, often telling us which specific college they attended. Some even managed to get in that they were ashamed to be British too for good measure.

This is the latest manifestation of a left-wing tradition, where it is standard practice for elite lefties to attend a private school and/or top university and then spend their lives criticising them and wanting to make them worse to address the guilt they feel because of their confused ideological contradictions. Long will it continue, but please let’s not rush to introduce bad government policy based on this latest misguided outbreak of outrage.

Oxford is a historic, global institution and a huge success story. It is a part of Britain’s immense soft-power, a cultural export envied around the world. Our top universities – of which it is one – are the aorta of the intellectual and cultural lifeblood of Britain. We should be immensely proud of Oxford University and seek to ensure it maintains and improves its standards and remains one of the greatest educational institutions in the world.

The figures show that very low numbers of black British students are making it to Oxford (and Cambridge). We have known this for some time. However, explaining why this is and considering what to do about it is the difficult part. The easiest response is to bash Oxford and imply that it is systematically prejudiced, then suggesting they alter their entrance requirements to achieve equality of outcome and improve diversity.

It is sadly typical of the miserable, self-flagellating British upper middle class to try and do down a jewel in the crown like this.

Oxford gives places to applicants with the best grades. Educational inequality begins far earlier, it can set in right from the early learning stage, become engrained at primary and by secondary school the die is cast.

University level is far too late to correct the serious shortcomings of an education. If certain groups within our society are underrepresented then look at early learning, primary and secondary education. This is the responsibility of our MPs. But instead too many of them are looking in the wrong place, complaining about the wrong thing, and abdicating responsibility.

Any implications of systematic racism, prejudice or unfairness are wide of the mark. Oxford has today pointed out that the proportion of black students was above the 1.8% of black A-level students who get three ‘A’ grades at ‘A’ level. Moreover, 17.9% of Oxford undergraduates are from ‘Black and Minority Ethnic’ (BME) backgrounds, 27% of undergraduate and post-graduate, British and overseas students are from BME backgrounds. The figure is 15.9% for British domiciled BME students undergraduates (2016).

The problem of underrepresentation is not the fault of Oxford. Very few black British A-Level students actually apply to Oxford. In 2016, 328 applications out of 12,193 were from black British students, 54 were offered places and 35 got in. The fact is – and this is what’s actually important here – in England, black pupils are significantly less likely to achieve three As than children from other ethnicities.

The only sensible conclusion to reach from these facts is that we need to ask why relatively few black British students currently meet the standard and see what can be done to help more achieve it. Ask why the pool of talent Oxford has to work with is too shallow. Improve this situation, don’t just bash Oxford for problems far beyond its control.

The problem here is the state school system, where 93% of British children are educated. Many politicians and commentators ignore the real problem while wasting their time complaining about our elite universities and that other great target of their resentment, the few remaining grammar schools.

The remnants of our old grammar school system which remain in affluent areas of the country are a great distraction for people uncomfortable criticising the grotesquely in-equal comprehensive system. (Incidentally, according to the 1966 Franks Report, in 1965 51% of Oxford pupils came from grammar or direct-grant schools. Sounds like a success story to me, but oh well.)

The comprehensive state school system overwhelmingly favours the wealthy. Pupils from wealthy families do best, pupils from poor families do worst. All the best schools are in wealthy areas and serve the wealthy. The middle class play the game by buying into affluent areas with good primary and secondary schools. If you live on an estate and the local schools are poor, tough luck pal. If you are a black British child from a poor background and your local school is no good, this Oxford bashing is going to do exactly nothing to help you.

It’s this simple. If you don’t make the grade for Oxford, you don’t get in. We must therefore see what can be done through government policy to help more people make the grade for Oxford and our other top universities.

For sure, post-16 education should be looked at, but inequality is created far earlier. Look at early learning and the primary and secondary school system.

My wife is a teacher and is often shocked by the poor level of education of pupils entering secondary school, which the secondary then must work at correcting. Why is this happening?

We need to ask difficult, probing questions about a problem that is far more complex than the quality of the debate suggests. It’s not even just education, we should consider other societal and cultural issues that might be driving this problem. Universities should not lower their standards or have heavy handed, misguided government regulation forced on them.

This public shaming of a great institution is ridiculous. Stop it.


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