I was at Oxford in the early 90s and I stuck out. Why? Because I was black and hardly anyone else was. Entrance exam & interview was the way in. Nowadays, Oxbridge tutors have a sea of A* candidates to choose from. That’s what happens when you dumb down exams. It does not solve social disadvantage. It perpetuates it.
I can see why David Lammy thinks the problem is Oxbridge. That’s how we’ve always thought and changing one’s mind is hard. But my own experiences (which are vast in this area) tell me that he is wrong.
- It is recognized that black students from private schools get in. So clearly the problem isn’t about race.
- I would love to know the number of white private school applicants who apply and then the number that have 3 As and get rejected. I’d also like to know the number of black students (from the state sector and then also from the private sector) who apply and the number that get rejected. Then we’d have some facts instead of wild speculation from people who have absolutely no experience of the system.
- There is data out there showing that the majority of successful state-school applicants to Oxbridge come from about 200 schools. I’d love to know how many black students attend these schools and if, when they apply, whether they also get rejected.
- The current evidence shows that blacks often apply for subjects like Law and Medicine where the rejection rate is high. Again, I would love to see more precise data on this. How many blacks applying for these subjects get rejected? How many whites applying for these subjects get rejected? How many blacks applying for other courses get rejected? We need more data.
- Because of the dumbing-down, grades are necessary but not sufficient. Is it really the case then that one just has to ‘whiten up’ to get in? Or is it more profound than that?
Why are so few blacks at Oxbridge?
- Over my long(ish) career, I have met so many teachers who are anti-Oxbridge that I have lost count. I have also met many teachers (but far fewer than those who hate Oxbridge) who are trying to encourage their pupils to apply but are so terrified at being called elitist that it is a battle that is rarely won in many state schools. Not all schools are like this of course. But far too many are, and we refuse to talk about it.
- The schools where many black pupils go can often not have knowledge as their focus. They believe in teaching skills. Oxbridge will expect students to know lots of stuff at interview. It is hard for kids to teach themselves, however bright they are.
- The schools where many black pupils go can be reluctant on insisting on a no-excuses behaviour culture. This means that pupils who could get to Oxbridge are held back by those who would never be able to go. Teachers cannot teach and even if they can, their time is taken dealing with the disruptors instead of pushing the top ones to go for the very best universities.
- The schools where many black pupils go can have mixed-ability classes. Teachers will pitch to the middle and so the ones at the bottom of the spectrum prevent the ones at the top from accessing the knowledge that is necessary to get them to Oxbridge.
- The schools where many black pupils go can have teachers who struggle to know the Oxbridge application process and requirements. Even if they are lucky to have a few teachers who are not anti-Oxbridge, these teachers do not know how to get them in.
As a Head, if you have Ofsted pressures to deal with, unreasonable parents, staff who need huge support, caretakers who don’t show up to work, amongst a million other daily fire-fighting issues, is it any wonder that your school’s Oxbridge count may not be your top priority?
Our top cohort is in year 10, but I have spent the last 2 years visiting both Cambridge and Oxford colleges, speaking to admissions tutors, asking for advice, attending events and conferences on how to get them in. It is a big focus of ours. In doing so, I have met countless Oxbridge tutors, all desperate for me to send them talented black pupils. I have met the full time staff employed by every Oxbridge college, all with one focus: widening access.
When the time comes, if we get some of ours in, I am certain people will say we got lucky. Or they’ll say that doesn’t it matter, all universities are the same anyway. But neither of these things will be true. And if someone took a moment to look at why Mossbourne or the London Academy of Excellence or Newham Collegiate Sixth Form or Harris Westminster (amongst others) get large numbers of ethnic minorities into Oxbridge, then we could start having a meaningful conversation about this.