“Which school did you go to?” It’s a grim question, carrying all kinds of presumption. Presumption that I went to private school, or maybe one of the big grammars. A subtext that, if whoever is asking the question hasn’t heard of my school, my school doesn’t count.
I’d like to say that I reply with a dressing-down about social and geographical inequalities. I’d be proud of myself if I sarcastically pointed out that there are more than a handful of schools in the UK, meaning to ask “which” is a bit of a narrow question. I’d even settle for an eyeroll.
But my reaction is usually automatic: “Oh, just a northern state school”. It’s that word, “just”, which is an issue here.
Oxford, like Cambridge, is great at many things. It’s academically rigorous, with some of the best student societies in the country and beautiful architecture. But it’s also great at making you feel less than what you are for having come from what is actually a very ordinary background.
Both universities have done a lot in recent years to combat this. Oxford has exceptional financial support for students from low-earning backgrounds (I speak as a grateful recipient of a full Oxford Bursary). It holds three open days a year, with other school visits running regularly. It also takes its open days on the road, jointly-running free Oxford and Cambridge Student Conferences to allow subject and student talks, and the opportunity to talk with real students who grew up local to the area.
But the hegemony of affluent areas and private school remains strong – and so too does the likelihood of encountering an alienating question or classist comment.
As a result, you’ll forgive me if, on reading David Lammy’s statistics, sourced from an Freedom of Information request, I’m not exactly shocked. Living on the Derbyshire/Yorkshire border, I am apparently part of the less-than-5 per cent who were admitted in the 2015 intake from the East Midlands, a region that makes up 7 per cent of the UK. Nearly half of Oxford offers went to applicants from London and the South East (a geographic area that represents roughly a quarter of the population), 15 per cent went to the North West, the North East, Yorkshire and the Humber, and 3 per cent went to Wales.
Many of the towns around which I’ve grown up are in the shadow of a long-gone mining and agriculture trade. Many parents drive their children off to university as the first in the family to do so. Seeing them off to higher education at all, whatever university that might be, is not a given – it is a new adventure for many families.
So, having participated in a great deal of access events, it’s clear to me that a great deal hinges on representation. To talk to a northerner at Oxford is a rare pleasure – to talk to one who is a scared and timid state-schooled 17 year old at an open day is rarer still.
Things are improving. In 2016, 59.2 per cent of all Oxford offers were made to state school pupils. That figure has been on the rise for two decades now. But Lammy’s figures rightly complicate the data. Broad figures aren’t enough – and may well lead to complacency. We do need a holistic approach to seeing who is admitted from where: after all, it should be painfully clear that not all state schools are created equal.
That’s because, even aside from the critical discrepancies between school performance (AAA from a state school means something different to what it does at any given private school), northern schools are hamstrung by that word again – representation.
In London and the South East, there are networks. Alumni visits. Dedicated Oxbridge officers. Advice as to which course and college to apply to maximise chances of getting in (even if the university themselves claim that this no longer has a material impact).
My school tried very hard for me, giving me the best chance of success that they could with imperfect resources, and I was lucky to be part of what was described as one of the strongest academic year groups in recent memory.
That’s a testament to the hard work and support of my teachers – but grades and a place at Oxford don’t always match up. When it comes to interviews – basically mock-lessons – students from non-academic backgrounds can find themselves thrown by oddball questions, or by the simple intimidation of “oh God this room is in a literal castle”. Bright students are often neutralised and incapable of showing themselves at their exceedingly-capable best.
Professors and outreach teams rightly say that there is a specific-Oxbridge style of teaching, based on debate and discussion. They say, rightly, that a lot of rejections come from a student being bright enough, but not fitting that outspoken mould. But in certain learning environments, academically gifted, state school students learn to be silent, to strip their vocabulary of larger words, to stifle themselves.
It comes down to academic confidence – something which a gutted Midlands sadly can’t often give to its young, but which affluent London and South East areas often can.
So while Oxford’s access work is well-funded and incredibly well-meaning, it clearly isn’t going far enough. Less well-off kids certainly apply – and they’re certainly hindered by a combination of socioeconomic and personal factors which work against them. This should – and must – lead to further, continued change, to give the opportunity for a world-class education wherever you’re from.
So, which school did I go to?
A northern state school. And I’m really proud of that.