The knife and fork test?
There has been disappointing news about university entrants. The number of kids from state schools going to university has fallen. So has the number from the poorest families going to what are called “leading universities”. So too (though no-one seems quite so bothered about this one) has the number of boys.
News like this tends to provoke another round in the favourite national sport of Oxbridge bashing. The general line is that we sit round after dinner, quaffing our claret and plotting to let in thick privately educated toffs, and keep out the brightest and best from ordinary schools. Just occasionally this is backed up by a cause célèbre: an unlucky applicant with 15 A stars at GCSE and a raft of perfect A levels who was rejected, in favour (so the implication is) of a less qualified bloke who knew how to hold his knife and fork.
Everyone (apart from us) likes this kind of stuff. Tabloids push the hard-luck story. The broadsheets play to the anxieties of a middle-class readership wondering if their children or grand-children are going to make it. And for the Labour front bench, deploring the wickedness of elitist academics is a cheap way of reassuring the back bench rebels that they still have some kind of concern for social justice.
Of course, it’s not like that at all. One problem with the cause célèbres is that rules of confidentiality stop us from telling our side of the story. The unsuccessful candidate’s head teacher or parents can leak all they like about the unfortunate line of questioning (“You mean you’ve never been to the United States?”) or the general bad treatment (“The interviewer was two hours late and then turned up in a dinner jacket”).
We, by contrast, have to resort to general platitudes about the intensity of the competition and our 1000s of excellent applications with equally stellar paper qualifications. Sometimes that is the only explanation for rejection. But sometimes, I can assure you, there are other reasons why the apparently brilliant Miss X didn’t get a place. And on those we must keep quiet.
But the more general point is that it is absolutely preposterous to imagine that people like me would choose to teach the stupid rich in preference to the bright poor. Of course, we make mistakes occasionally or we say things in interviews (usually quite inadvertently) that irritate or even upset a candidate. But for as long as I have been doing Cambridge interviews (over 20 years now) we have been pursuing intellectual potential, not social and cultural advantage.
The trouble is that the pursuit of potential is an inexact science. Let me give you an (entirely imaginary) example. On the one hand: Candidate A -- a girl living with an unemployed grandmother in bed and breakfast accommodation, and attending a school from which only 5% of the pupils proceed to higher education, who has got 4 As at A level. On the other hand: Candidate B -- a boy from an extremely expensive public school , whose Mum and Dad met at Cambridge before proceeding to lucrative legal careers, who also has 4 As. It is obvious that it has taken a lot more for Candidate A to get to this point than Candidate B and her potential may well be greater (and I’m as sure as I could be that she would get a place). But that does not mean that Candidate B does not deserve a place too – and you couldn’t rule out the possibility that he was actually cleverer. After all, geniuses come from posh homes as well as poor ones.
So we do our best. We get trained how to interview more fairly (no knife and fork tests or class-specific questioning). We visit schools to encourage the best to apply (and not to be put off by what they read in the paper). And we get all the data that we can. Despite the recent fuss about such an initiative at Oxford, for years we have been given “adjusted A level scores” (which take account of their school’s overall performance) for all our candidates. But frankly we are not helped by the fact that school references are now open to the applicant, so we get a lot less straight talking from head teachers than we used to.
The bottom line is that it is politically naïve (as well as unfair) for a government to underfund the state education system and to take little effective action on social justice, and then to blame “leading universities” for not righting the wrongs they have perpetuated.