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This is very interesting

The following article from The Indy caught my eye today. I don't mean to
be a bit silly here, but this is the kind of thing that has affected
some of my friends and as one teacher remarked, myself. Still, I quite
like what happened to me, I met even more interesting and better friends
than ever before. However I would like to think that one day, perhaps,
someone in my lineage will attend. Actually my wife's bro and
sister-in-law went to an Oxbridge - but that is another story...

Nothing causes a louder shriek in Britain than if you challenge the
right of the rich to pass their privilege untouched on to their
children. The shadow chancellor George Osborne has just decreed that the
richest 1 per cent will – under David Cameron – be allowed to inherit £2
million estates they have done nothing to earn without paying a penny of
it towards schools and hospitals. The "horror" of inheritance tax –
introduced in the great progressive wave of the Edwardian era – will be
over. This has been greeted with a gurgle of pleasure by Conservatives;
why should anyone get in the way of wealth "cascading down the
generations", as a Tory Prime Minister once put it?

Over the next few months, an even more tender spot for the privileged
will be pressed: Oxford and Cambridge admissions. Today, a third of all
Oxbridge students come from just 100 top schools. For example, half of
the entire intake of £20,000-a-year Westminster School go there every
year: some 410 pupils. The wealthy now have a taken-for-granted
expectation that their kids will go to the best universities.

Some on the right, like the late Bill Deedes, explained this by saying
the wealthy are a genetic over-class who naturally have cleverer
children. But there's a hole in the side of this theory: several studies
have shown that when rich people adopt kids from poor backgrounds, those
children go on to do just as well.

To see how this buying of unearned privilege works, I have to introduce
you to two people I know who applied to study Philosophy at the same
Cambridge college as me in 1998. The first is a likeable, confident guy
whose parents are wealthy businesspeople. Let's call him Andrew. They
sent him to one of the most expensive private schools in Britain, and he
had never been in a class larger than 12. He was trained for over a year
for his Cambridge interview – a near-scientific drill that included
one-on-one tuition by Oxbridge graduates, extensive rewriting of his
application form "with" a teacher, and even being videoed so his body
language could be analysed.

The other person, by contrast, was a chain-smoking teenager brought up
on an Enfield estate by her dinner-lady mum. Laura wrote her application
alone, and she had no preparation for her interview at all. None. Most
of her A-level classes had 25 people in them, and were led by teachers
who hadn't even got top grades themselves. Andrew got four As. Laura got
an A and three Bs.

Who had demonstrated they were smarter? I'd say Laura did – but she was
rejected, while Andrew got in. His training – and a lifetime in such
surroundings – paid off. Laura was nervous, and her complex thoughts
about Nietzsche and Hume and Russell must have appeared less polished.
It was Cambridge's loss: the cleverer student got away. This isn't a
stray anecdote. For too long, it was the main story. In 2006, for
example, the gap between the best private schools and the best grammar
schools in exam results was just 1 per cent – but the private schools
students were still twice as likely to be admitted.

Here's where we get to the pressure-point. For the past few years,
senior figures in Oxford and Cambridge – pressured by a Labour
government – have resolved this can't go on. They want to run a
university for the best, not a highbrow finishing school. So they have
begun to introduce very mild reformist measures. Instead of just looking
at the surface of exam and interview performance, they will judge them
in the context of the student's life. They'll look at your school's
average exam grades, whether your parents went to university, and the
area you're from: if you got good grades at a school in Moss Side,
you'll be rated higher. This is painted by huffing headmasters at
private schools as "positive discrimination". But the choice is not
between a system that discriminates and one that doesn't. It's between a
blunt, blind admissions system that discriminates in favour of wealthy
well-trained interview-machines, and a sophisticated, seeing one that
snuffles out the genuinely clever.

Soon the green shoots of these new policies will become clear. Geoff
Parks, Cambridge's Director of Admissions, says early indicators show
there will be a "significant" increase in pupils from normal backgrounds
this year. Expect a firestorm of anger. The right-wing press will rage
that "middle-class" children are being "persecuted". Their definition of
"middle-class" is increasingly comic: the median wage in Britain is
£24,000. Half of us earn more; half of us earn less. Yet they describe
as "Middle England" people who spend that entire sum every year on one
child's schooling.

Often, the privileged will defend their place merely with a visceral
howl of "It's mine!" For example, David Cameron's relative Harry Mount
has written an angry article asking, "What's wrong with keeping Oxford
within the family?" He admits his success at his interview was
"staggeringly unfair" but went on to say the only problem is rich people
can't buy preference for their children outright with "donations."

There will be furious predictions that Oxbridge will collapse under a
"chav-alanche" of inferior students. Those of us who believe that in
Britain you should be able to get to the top if you are smart need to
push back hard for these changes to be stepped up. Of course Oxbridge
can't get us all the way to genuine meritocracy. For that, the schools
system needs to be reworked to be genuinely comprehensive, rather than
the parody we have today where they are split between good schools
selecting by house-price and sink schools for the rest. But even with
the unequal products of that system, Oxbridge can go a lot further.

In the 1970s, when the former Conservative Prime Minister Harold
Macmillan was Chancellor of Oxford University, he was amazed by the
changes in the admissions process. "In my day," he said, "all they asked
you was where you got your boots made." In the 2040s, we will be equally
astonished that Oxbridge used to rely so heavily on interviews that give
an unfair advantage to the well-drilled children of the wealthy.



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