Alphen, Netherlands. 20 October. This is a Friday blog blast. Having spent much of the week undertaking a major edit of the forthcoming GLOBSEC report on NATO Adaptation, and royally sick of Brexit (bloody hashtag or no) I want to write about something closer to home - Oxford. Don’t worry, next week I will write about the October Revolution and Luther, although not in the same blog.
David Lamy MP, one of the Labour Party’s more considered activists, has used freedom of information legislation to ‘prove’ that Oxford and Cambridge do not let enough people from modest backgrounds to aspire to dream at either. On the face of it the figures speak for themselves, but only on the face of it. Indeed, I am living proof of the efforts made by Oxford to recruit ‘oicks from the sticks’.
My success had little to do with my being a genius. Rather, I was a beneficiary of the then then Labour Secretary of State for Education, Shirley Williams. At the time she was issuing threats to Oxford and Cambridge that were very similar to those of Mr Lamy and friends today. When I went up to University College, Oxford I was one of the first pupils from a bog standard Comprehensive School. Comprehensive schools had only been created in the early 70s by a Labour government which objected to the ‘streaming’ (segregation) of children by ability. Before comprehensive schools pupils were divided at the age of eleven into a relatively small elite who went to so-called grammar schools, and the rest who were ‘binned’ in secondary modern schools doomed, as the Left would have it, to a life of drudgery and servitude.
Aged eighteen Oxford frightened the living daylights out of me. Nothing in my prior life had prepared me for the social shock of ‘going up’, and the only thing lower than my teenage self-confidence were my social skills. Well, at least my self-confidence has improved over the years. Worse, because I was reading for an honours degree in Modern History I was required to pass an examination in Latin (which gives you some idea about Oxford’s view of modernity) some eight weeks after arriving in College. Given that the nearest thing I had to an education in Latin was the occasional visit to a 1970s Italian restaurant this proved somewhat of a challenge.
To say my first year was not a success is an under-statement. Oxford at the time was more class-ridden than the very class-ridden society it then served. I felt utterly intimidated by the people, I hated the place and I felt utterly miserable. Indeed, I would have ‘jacked’ the whole thing in were it not for the fact that I was a half-decent sportsman and spent much of my time with US and other foreign Rhodes Scholars. I had a lot more in common with them than many of the posh kids from ‘pubic’ schools who had spent their entire lives preparing for just such an elevation. Still, the College stuck with me, and I stuck with the College, and eventually I gained my degree.
Fast forward to today. University College, Oxford, and its Master Sir Ivor Crewe, make sterling efforts to recruit the best and the brightest from all backgrounds, and to ensure they are looked after whilst ‘up’. Indeed, I have seen such efforts bear fruit as ‘College’ today is a very different place to the one I endured and experienced. In my own modest way I support the College in this endeavour by supporting in turn students from backgrounds not dissimilar to my own. In the 1970s I hated College, now I am proud of it and its efforts to promote intelligent diversity, and the sense of family it creates. Of course, more can and will be done but not I hope at the cost of the excellence for which Oxford stands.
Like many alumni I occasionally return to ‘Univ’. Now, I am careful not to go back too often as I am a firm believer that one should avoid imposing too much nostalgia on those present today. We all have our time and then we move on. However, precisely because my return visits are few and far between I am always pleasantly surprised by the extent to which Univ moves with the times, and actively seeks so to do.
It would be an absolute travesty to lower standards simply to meet class/race quotas, or because Mr Lamy wants to make some class war point, or because much of the country’s education system is crap. This is because Oxford and Cambridge are, and must remain inherently competitive places. Any institution committed to excellence must be. For all the efforts of Sir Ivor and his team to make students feel comfortable those who were ‘sent up’ simply to fill said quotas would be miserable. Indeed, for those unable to keep up Oxford can be an unforgiving place.
Oxford and Cambridge must always recruit the best and the brightest...but how? What David Lamy’s report really points to is the lamentable state of much of Britain’s state education. This is something I witnessed in some students during my brief time as a lecturer at King’s College, London. What is needed is a school system that identifies talent early and nurtures it. The problem in many schools is that such 'selection' smacks too much of the elitism that people such as Mr Lamy deride.
If Mr Lamy succeeds Oxford and Cambridge would become like much of the rest of Britain – bloody mediocre with an elite even more bloody mediocre than the one that is so royally screwing up the country right now…several of whom were my contemporaries!
Oxford and Cambridge are good because they are good. They should be kept that way.