Peter Wilby\’s solution of Oxbridge exclusivity

Suppose Oxford and Cambridge were to ask every state school to identify, at 15, its brightest pupils academically (one, two or three, depending on size). Suppose those pupils were given every possible support and guidance in A-level subject choice and teaching. Suppose they were invited annually to week-long summer schools where they could form their own peer networks of solidarity and support.

We have a word to describe such a practice.


Oft considered a no no in our famously egalitarian education system.

Hell, why not go the whole hog. Take the 10% who might possibly get there and stick them in a different school?

We could call them grammars.

45 thoughts on “Peter Wilby\’s solution of Oxbridge exclusivity”

  1. So Much For Subtlety

    You can’t call them Grammars. They are a legacy of a failed divisive Tory past. You need to call them “People’s Vanguard Learning Centres”. That is progressive.

  2. You may take the boy out of the Grammar School, but you can’t take the Grammar School out of the boy. This seems to count as original thought at the Grauniad.

  3. I really don’t get it. Grammar schools are derided as divisive artificial dividers of children at a particular age, fair enough (if thats the way your brain works).

    But how can you then suggest picking (via a completely opaque system of teacher choice, not an open examination) a few pupils per school for the massive potential rewards of a better education? The system would stink of nepotism, of people sucking up to the person with the power of decision, the decision itself would be open to arbitrary personal vendettas by staff who disliked certain pupils/parents etc etc. You couldn’t possibly devise a more divisive and corrupt system.

    And all because grammar schools are evil.

  4. In my junior school there were two groups, one was expected to pass 11+, the other was not. Needless to say most of the effort was put into ensuring that those deemed worthy of an 11+ pass got it.

    The problem with selection resulting in children going to different types of school is that it’s final. Better to stick with comprehensives and stream the classes. A poor school isn’t a poor school because it’s not a grammar, it’s a poor school because of the head and teachers.

    The problem with our education system has never been what happens to the top third, it’s what happens to the bottom third.

  5. Wilby has got the right sort of idea. If we want to get more pupils from state schools into Oxbridge, we should stop telling off the admissions tutors and get the schools to make an effort instead. Each school should have a teacher responsible for identifying pupils with Oxbridge potential and trying to get them in.

  6. There’s another word to describe such a practice, in practice: bribery.
    How much? Dunno, but less than the cost of a decent independent education obviously, but enough to double the teacher’s pay, probably.

  7. You don’t get it Jim because you don’t understand, in the teaching profession, all teachers without exception are outstanding so wouldn’t do any of that. Which is curious. Because you can listen to individual teachers complaining about the shortfalls of their colleagues, yet defaulting to the above when discussing the profession.
    There’s a similar process goes on in the health service, social work etc. Individually we are human, collectively divine.

  8. The tone of the article is overwrought.

    “Those students already know many of their fellow undergraduates and can share in-jokes, catchphrases, memories and social contacts.”

    Could that be because they are… friends? Mates trying to get into the same university is hardly the preserve of the upper clarse.

    “Elite universities provide territory for gangs formed in public schools.”

    As a comedy northerner I didn’t feel any more out of place visiting Oxford to sit an entrance exam (and failing) any more than I felt visiting other universities. There was instant common ground between myself and some very well spoken lads by watching Ironside in the common room. And at no point did I think they might stab me.

    The underlying motive is revealed towards the end: “Middle-class parents would clamour to get their children into comprehensives in disadvantaged areas in hope of them grabbing one of those precious places. The influx of more aspirational families would raise standards more effectively than anything governments have done in the past 30 years.”

    This was the reason given for bring Grammar schools to an end. Forcing sharp elbowed parents to have to deal with substandard teaching establishments in the vain hope those parents would give crap schools a kick up the arse. Has it worked? What is the department for education for if not for ensuring good standards of education?

  9. Steve Crook says: “The problem with our education system has never been what happens to the top third, it’s what happens to the bottom third.”

    If only that were so. The top third get just as lousy and education as the bottom third, and for the same reason. The top third will get five A*-C grades without much effort, and once they have got that minimal target most schools lose all interest in pushing them further. The bottom third will never get there so there’s not much point pushing them at all. The middle third get all the effort because they are the only ones where the school can make a difference in hitting government targets.

  10. PaulB @ 5
    ” Each school should have a teacher responsible for identifying pupils with Oxbridge potential and trying to get them in.”
    Oh heavens! You can see where that’d be leading. Which teacher Paul? The bearded Trot with the Che t-shirt? The one thinks the minorities need a little extra help up the ladder. Especially his? The one who collects thick brown envelopes?

  11. “The middle third get all the effort because they are the only ones where the school can make a difference in hitting government targets.”

    This. I know some teachers, and one of their colleagues gets ‘wonderful’ results every year by putting all his effort into getting the D pupils over the line to a C. Nothing else matters. The obvious losers get ignored, they’re never making a C, the B pupils and above are left to their own devices as they can’t help improve his A-C ratio. He’s considered a wonderful teacher, despite many of the pupils being entirely unaware of huge amounts of the maths curriculum, they’ve just been crammed with enough bits of knowledge to creep them over the line to a C. They have no concept of the numerical processes, just that if you get a question on X, you do A, B and C, and thats the answer. They are functionally numerically illiterate, in that they can’t think for themselves, to solve a problem. They just know how to answer specific types of exam questions.

  12. ‘Each school should have a teacher responsible for identifying pupils with Oxbridge potential and trying to get them in.’

    Yes, and there should be a huge new layer of bureaucracy created to monitor these teachers, assess their performance, strive for ‘best practice’, manage their outcomes etc etc yaddad yadda.

    Or we could just allow talent itself to decide.

  13. The problem with the old Gramma/Secondary Modern system was it was meant to be a three tier system, but they didn’t create enough Technical colleges. This meant that it looked like and all or nothing system.
    If we had a proper three tier system (like Germany) we would probably still have it today.

  14. I went to Oxford as the son of a plumber from a shite-hole pit village in County Durham, and I wasn’t out of place at all. There’s plenty of state schoolies going these days, so Wilby’s sense of urgency is about twenty years out of date.

    The number of private school kids there, however, is still disproportionate, due to the uselessness of state schools. I agree with Paul, the schools need to do more, it’s not Oxbridge’s responsibility.

  15. @Oxonymous ‘ I agree with Paul, the schools need to do more,’

    I agree that the schools should do more, but not with Paul.

    The problem with his no doubt well-meaning but essentially Blairite suggestion, that ‘Each school should have a teacher responsible for identifying pupils with Oxbridge potential and trying to get them in’, is this:

    What does this teacher actually DO?

    Ask the head to expel the kids whose behaviour is making it impossible for the brighter kids to learn?

    Good luck with that.

    Ask the head to sack the teachers who can’t cope, don’t know the subject, take weeks off sick, think education is about anything but imparting facts, or are just nice but useless?

    Good luck with that, too.

    Ask the teachers who actually teach the brighter kids – as opposed to those who are newly ‘responsible for identifying pupils with Oxbridge potential’ – to teach better, rather than just to the test?

    Good luck with that, also.

    The solution is actually very simple, though it would take time.

    Sack the bad teachers, expel the bad kids*, and teach the kids stuff.

    Basically, that’s all that happens in the better private schools, except that the county side play one fixture a year on the 1st team square and they have a multimedia lecture hall that can seat 500 people.

    *To where I don’t know and ultimately I don’t care. There has to be some penalty for wilfully throwing away 11 years of free education, and if it means you spend your life ‘on the scrapheap’ so be it.

  16. BiS: Which teacher? Preferably one who went to Oxbridge herself.

    Interested: “there should be a huge new layer of bureaucracy created…” No there shouldn’t.

    What I’m suggesting is that state schools should do the same thing as fee-paying schools do, which is to give selected pupils assistance aimed at getting them into Oxbridge. Don’t you want state schools to be more like public schools?

    Rather obviously, disruptive children are not the problem in A-level classes. What makes it harder to get into Oxbridge from a state school is first, the lack of encouragement to apply, and second the lack of specialized tuition and guidance to make your application successful. Fee-paying schools provide this; if we want the best students at Oxbridge, all schools should.

  17. You’re right, Interested. “Ultimately” they’ll spend time in jail, cost us a fortune, blah blah.
    Maybe we could improve things a bit if we stopped pretending that education is a right. or a duty. We should tell them education is a privilege. After all, more than a billion folk don’t even get to go to a crappy comp.

  18. My public school took a bunch of the brighter kids in my year and trained them to go to Oxford & Cambridge. Only about 8 kids out of a sixth form year of 40 – far as I know all who applied got in. Was not one teacher involved in decision making however but several.

  19. Paul’s definitely right on this one. The state schools will never have the same ability to push kids to apply, and ultimately get into, Oxbridge. But a decent teacher can make a hell of a lot of difference.

    We had a teacher that pushed plenty of kids to apply, about 15 or 20, but there was no work done on actually prepping us for the application or interview process.

    The teacher doesn’t necessarilly have to have gone to Oxbridge, but it definitely would help. There’s loads of misconceptions as to what an Oxbridge interview entails. Perhaps the universities could offer a teach from each school a mock interview to see what it’s like.

  20. All this rather assumes, of course, that the highest aspiration of the English educational system should be to get students into Oxbridge. Which strikes me as a rather odd idea.

  21. The exegetical process of sifting sense out of a Peter Wilby column is substantially eased if one bears in mind that he’s a cunt.

    When I were a lad, my public school had a bod called “the Oxbridge tutor” whose job it was to groom kids for the application process, both academically and socially. The top-rated pupils were indeed expected by default to apply to one or the other (the peculiar cachet they enjoyed in those days meant UCCA wouldn’t let it be both.) I decided that poofter provincial universities were not for me and went to Imperial instead, to much consternation as it hurt the ‘number of pupils placed in Oxbridge’ stat they touted to new parents.

    Of course all of this would be obviated if the better universities simply had the balls to refuse State funding, drop fee caps, and set their own admissions policies. Then they could tell the likes of Wilby to fuck off.

  22. All this rather assumes, of course, that the highest aspiration of the English educational system should be to get students into Oxbridge. Which strikes me as a rather odd idea.

    Exactly. The assumption that anyone smart must by default want to go to Oxbridge is IMO a rather large one. Smartest person I ever met was a girl from Nottinghamshire who would have waltzed into Oxbridge without even trying. She went to Manchester because she thought the ethos of the university was far more in line with the type of person she was (and ended up completing 5-years of a Mechanical Engineering degree with an average of over 90%). Having seen some seriously smart people at Manchester University, I find it hard to believe they all really wanted to go to Oxbridge.

    Also, I’ve never quite understood people who disparage the students at Oxbridge as being a bunch of over privileged toffs, yet complain that normal people (of whom they approve) cannot join them. It’s not like Oxbridge are the only decent universities in the UK.

  23. the peculiar cachet they enjoyed in those days meant UCCA wouldn’t let it be both

    I don’t think this was an UCCA rule. I thought it was that you had to list the universities in order of preference, and whichever one you put second would dismiss you by default.

  24. @PaulB: ‘Interested: “there should be a huge new layer of bureaucracy created…” No there shouldn’t.’

    To explain sarcasm, for ‘should’ read ‘would’.

    If you really think that the setting up of a scheme to make one teacher in every relevant school responsible for kids with Oxbridge potential would not involve the parallel development of a vast new class of bureaucrats to manage, assess and report on the teachers and their results, you have not been paying attention.

    ‘Rather obviously, disruptive children are not the problem in A-level classes.’

    So you think the solution to crap state education is to introduce university commissars at the first year of upper sixth?

    Hmmm. We could try it, but I think it might be better to try to learn from the example of those who’ve had the potential crushed out of them by chaotic classrooms, violent yobs and shite teachers somewhat earlier on in their schooling.

  25. My secondary school, a decent Catholic comp in the Midlands, always picked out the brightest sparks and gave them some extra support and encouragement to try and get them into Oxbridge. All well and good.. except that it seemed as if the brightest sparks were always suspiciously respectable church-going pillars of the school community and not, neccessarily, the smartest guys in the room.

    And yes, I was the slightly grungy long-haired guy who liked football and hung around with the bad (aka ‘fun’) kids who was never given any encouragement to apply despite being, objectively, more able than those who were given it.

    But, anyway, I’m not bitter… I’m with Tim… I went to the place I always intended on going to.. I never really aspired to Oxbridge at the time, and have never looked back and wished that I’d been properly encouraged at the time.

  26. Oxonymous actually knows what happened at Oxbridge in his time unlike certain others.
    It is a matter of simple historical fact that in my time a majority of Oxford undergraduates came from grammar schools. Of the 40-odd% who had been to public schools at least a large minority (just possibly a majority) had benefited from a scholarship in order to do so.
    The decline in state school participation at the best universities is a result of the introduction of the comprehensive and the perverse incentives alluded to by Jim and Jonathan Jones to tick boxes instead of teaching the boys who want to learn (I say “boys” because modern teachers do seem to cater somewhat for girls who want to learn).

  27. Tim Newman: no, it was a rule. You could put Oxford or Cambridge on your list along with whatever others you were interested in, but not both. The rule may have been imposed at the insistence of the two universities, but it was nonetheless formally part of the application rubric.

    I got an offer from Cambridge (Corpus), but those in the know said Imperial’s physics course was better, so I plumped for London. A very bright girl in my year elected to go to East Anglia because their modern languages programme was rated most highly at that point. The ‘X% of our pupils attend Oxbridge’ line really was just a marketing ploy. At Imperial there was certainly an overabundance of public school pupils relative to their representation among the school population, but that was only to be expected.

    This was twenty-five years ago, and I have very little idea of how things are now, having been out of academia since the end of the 90’s.

  28. David Gillies, it is still true that (with a few exotic exceptions) you can only apply to either Oxford or Cambridge in any one year; you cannot normally apply to both simultaneously.

  29. Look, you don’t want grammars if you want streaming: you want comprehensives. Grammars are one-size-fits-all, big government solutions. The comprehensive allows teachers (if they’re doing their job properly) to tailor the school experience to each child.

    For example, a child in top set for maths might be rubbish at English literature, or a bright young historian may completely flop at biology. Grammars wouldn’t help you with those children: they either sink in the grammar or get stunted in the secondary modern.

    On the flipside, you might be a sensation at woodwork but also be a very good linguist. Grammar, or secondary modern? In a comprehensive, you can stream children appropriately and direct them towards a range of options rather than limiting them to academics or practical. *And* we get to lose this dreadfully snobbish English attitude about the professions (yay! good chap!) and the trades (boo! oik!).

    Of course, this isn’t how it works out, for a variety of reasons: among them, no-one in education really gets the point about streaming. Everyone, left, right, teacher, minister, whatever, is sold on the myth that a comprehensive education is about being waffly and inclusive. I know that’s what people thought even as they introduced it, but all I can say is they were plainly crackers: the way you run a good comprehensive is very heavy streaming. And if you do it right, you stand a good chance of turning out more well-rounded and better-equipped children than either a grammar or a secondary modern ever did.

  30. The story goes that you can only apply to both Oxford and Cambridge in the same year if you’re applying to be an Organ Scholar.

    And Oxbridge remains the only place on Earth that teaches the liberal arts properly. And I will poo on anyone who denegrates the arts when they’re taught properly.

    I don’t really buy the above, that grammars are big government. I’m happy enough for parents to make the choice, though. Have a grammar and a comp in an area, and just slap a voucher on the kid’s back.

  31. @philip walker ‘Look, you don’t want grammars if you want streaming: you want comprehensives. Grammars are one-size-fits-all, big government solutions.’

    Except that my brother’s kids are at a state grammar school in Gloucestershire where the pupils are streamed.

  32. One of the problem with comprehensives are that they are too big for the Headmaster/Headmistress to know each pupil. A second one is that they are a “one-size-fits-all” forcing non-academic pupils to undertake a second-class academic educations instead of a first-class technical education. Grammar schools selected the kids most likely to benefit from an academic education and gave them one.
    Comprehensive schools were designed to select on any basis *except aptitude and/or ability*. Grammar schools (and public schools) streamed children for most subjects [those where they had as many teachers as sets].
    Incidentally my school had a woodwork class and one of my friends did ‘A’ levels in double Maths Physics and Art.
    Philip Walker is clearly confused.

  33. “A poor school isn’t a poor school because it’s not a grammar, it’s a poor school because of the head and teachers. “

    …and its pupils. Many teachers are really quite good when faced with moderately well-behaved children, but can’t cope with the disruptive element. Conversely, teachers who are skilled at getting the disruptive sorts to behave better and learn something aren’t always so good with the quiet and studious.

    [Sidenote re David Gillies / Tim Newman] Back in the day, it was widely rumoured to be the case that if you listed either Oxford or Cambridge on your UCCA form, you’d automatically be rejected by Bristol or Durham out of pique.

  34. Back in the day, it was widely rumoured to be the case that if you listed either Oxford or Cambridge on your UCCA form, you’d automatically be rejected by Bristol or Durham out of pique.

    That must have changed: Durham was *the* university for Oxbridge rejects, was it not? That was the case for my sister anyway, who failed to get the grades for Cambridge having been offered a place.

  35. Oxonymous, the Organ Scholar route is indeed one of the two exceptions allowing simultaneous applications to Oxford and Cambridge, though in many subjects it would be closer to the truth to describe these as simultaneous pre-applications. The other route is for second undergraduate degrees.

    Tim Newman, modern UCAS forms (the successor to UCCA) do not allow universities to know which other universities a candidate is applying to, but in practice little has changed, and Durham and Bristol are still well endowed with Oxbridge rejects.

  36. Philip Walker is clearly confused.

    Quite possibly. Certainly, I am too young for a grammar school education, and was in a streamed comprehensive. (Oh, the horror stories I can tell. I can heartily acknowledge the failures of some comprehensive schools.)

    But I suspect that neither you nor Interested are really engaging with my central point, which is that we should not make the following assumption: “children who pass the 11+ are going to be better at most subjects (academic ones at least) than children who don’t.”

    I agree that for many children the assumption basically works, give or take. You get children who were in top set for almost everything and children in bottom set for almost everything. But I’m not bothered about them: grammar or comprehensive, either way they will shine and sink respectively. The ones about whom I am concerned are the ones whom you seem to forget. You talk about children who would benefit from an academic education: but what about the marginal cases?

    The grammar system, being fundamentally binary, fails to take full account of human diversity. So those marginal cases are the ones whom the grammar system fails by mis-allocation, and whom a good comprehensive will help by giving them tailored education.

  37. In my day, the non-Oxbridge universities that fancied themselves as the best would reject you if you put them down as your second choice unless your first choice was Oxbridge. Cambridge was my first choice, and I remember Bristol bent over backwards to try and get me in, without even seeing me.

    I went to St A, so am very glad I didn’t get into Cambridge.

  38. @Jonathon Jones #10
    The top third may not get too much help, but then they’re probably the pupils that need it least, they’re usually the ones with the motivated parents. Those in the middle probably do need pushing by the school but also mostly have parents who care, and those at the bottom often have parents who couldn’t give a toss.

    My mum asked a school friend of mine why his parents didn’t help him with his homework (he was working on it at my house and regularly did so). He said “I might as well ask the cat”.

    My parents cared, I did ok, despite the school. His didn’t, and he sank without trace…

  39. @ Philip Walker
    NO – it was a tripartite system.
    The were two really valuable points
    i) it enabled bright kids from a working-class/poor (depending on your choice of definition) to get an education that equipped them to become teachers/doctors/priests/lawyers/scientists/bankers/politicians.
    ii) secondary technical schools prepared boys and girls for craft trades or clerical jobs depending on their aptitudes
    Those who showed no aptitude for academic studies were given a thorough basic education and allowed out at 15; less bad than being forced to stay in school until 16 or 18 and disrupting the education of those who wanted to study.
    Your central point sounds fine until we look at the converse which shows that you assume that the 11+ exam was useless at discriminating between those suited to an academic education and those who were not. I have never claimed that it was perfect (one of my friends failed due to “exam nerves” and later got an Oxford B.Sc.) but it was a lot better than allocating pupils on the basis of their parents’ wealth or where they lived (Holland Park Comprehensive was notoriously filled with the children of Labour MPs).
    You postulate a “good comprehensive”: have you counted them? I doubt that you would run out of fingers because comprehensives are almost uniformly too big (Eton is too big, too, but its house system alleviates the problem somewhat). Providing an individually tailored education to each of a thousand pupils is asking more than most schools and teachers are able, let alone willing, to provide. I noticed the difference when I moved from a school with about 100 pupils (less than 100 when I started , more than 100 when I left) to one with just over 400 pupils: from a distinctive and appreciated individual (albeit a few teachers found me a headache) to a trivium (it did get better but when I asked to change my ‘A’ level selection the headmaster did not, although I had the best ‘O’ level results in the whole school, know who I was – at my previous school the headmaster would notice whether or not I was wearing spectacles if he came into the classroom to speak to the teacher).
    My son did not want to go to public school (one teacher tried to persuade him to take an Eton scholarship: we would have supported him if he took a scholarship to a middle-class public school – I did cycle as a child) so he went to what we thought was the best local comprehensive. In his first year the maths teacher gave him and three other boys the year 3 course; the next year they had a different teacher who insisted that those four had to go back and do the year 2 course. You think a good comprehensive will tailor education to the child – well, I beg to differ: can you give me a single verifiable example?

  40. @ Philip Walker
    Sorry I missed the query about marginal cases. The 11+ tested Arithmetic, English and IQ. The marginal cases that you postulate would have ended up in Secondary Tech with the possibility to switch to Grammar Schools after ‘O’ level – a different friend who passed 11+ went to a Secondary Tech because there weren’t enough grammar school places in the area (yes, a major failing in the system) transferred into sixth form and went to university becoming a chemistry teacher until his doctor demanded that he retire because the stress of teaching disruptive pupils was damaging his heart to a potentially lethal extent. In his 50s Dave could run 400 metres in less than 70 seconds (leaving me well behind), so I found that shocking.

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