Academic Arguments


'Hence the horrible suspicion that our only choice is between societies with few free men and societies with none.'

CS Lewis

It is a worrying to find myself defending the Public Schools.

After all, these institutions--where worthwhile academic pursuits take second place to Cricket and Latin; where young boys acts as servants to older ones and where beatings and sodomy are an important part of the curriculum--symbolise everything which is wrong with England and English education. The fact that no such schools have existed for at least a hundred years doesn’t stop them from symbolising it.

Brief aside for the benefit of Americans: In Ye Olden Days, if you were extremely rich you hired a Private Tutor for your son, but if you were only very rich, you had to educate him at a Public School. State education for the poor is a relatively modern innovation. So referring to Private Schools as Public School makes perfect sense, like driving on the left and the House of Lords.

We’re currently mid-hoo-har because it transpires that one Ms. Laura Spence has been turned down for a place at Magdelen (pronounced Mawdlin: deal with it) College Oxford despite having several hundred first class GCSEs and the confident expectation of earning several hundred more first class 'A' levels. Not being able to get into either of the Universities in England she has been forced to slum it at Harvard since the Americans is not like us and recognise talent in any walk of life, ‘owever ‘umble.

A vague suspicion has been voiced that Oxford may have exhibited a hint of bias because she was educated at a State School rather than a Public one.

I well remember my university interview; the nervousness of getting a day off school and travelling by train to a strange town; the unspeakable joy at my first sight of the gleaming spires of Sussex, which had stood unchanged and unchanging since the early 1960s. I fell in love with the place the moment I saw the felt tipped advertisement blue-tacked to the brick walls of the Mandela building (no, really) for a student run co-op selling curried hippy at lunch times. I was in love with an Idea of a University that I had picked up from 'The History Man': the endless parties and refectory lunches, the world of intellectual discussion and reading; the idea of being able to hang around in the library and study stuff without interference from teachers. I think I was already hung up on the idea of the 1960s, and Sussex in the 80s was about as close to the 60s as one could get. In the event, I spent most of my time at college giving out Christian Union leaflets, but that’s another story.

I was interviewed by no less a personage than A.D Nuttall, whose eminent book on the representation of God in Milton I can remember absolutely nothing about. He asked me a lot of questions about Dungeons and Dragons, and suggested that the popularity of role-playing games might lead to a resurgence of interest in Spencer’s Fairy Queen. I certainly didn’t contradict him. He asked me what I thought of utilitarianism and a passage from Macbeth. One of those neat grammar school girls with good exam results and no brain was the next in the waiting room: what did he ask you, she said, what did he talk about, what books do I need to have read? 'Well,' I said, 'He asked me about Spencer and Macbeth, but I don’t think he was testing me particularly, I think those were just what came up in the conversation.' I don’t know if she'd been planning to read The Fairy Queen in the next five minutes.

He offered me a place conditional on two Bs and a C which I duly got; and subsequently awarded me a 2:1 degree. The interview was a formality: more for me to look at the university than for Mr. Nuttall to interrogate me.

It wouldn’t be quite true to say that I didn’t have the opportunity to try for Oxbridge. (I think that we should make more use of these portmanteau words. ‘I didn’t get into Oxbridge, so I’m trying for Susscaster and Readventry’) When you are institutionalised in the tarmac hell the social engineers call 'comprehensive school' there are lots of opportunities, but you have to know how to take them up. I didn't. There were tennis courts, but I only ever played football. Kids occasionally left geography to play the clarinet, but I just memorised the major exports from Uruguay. A handful of sixth formers were put in for the Oxbridge entrance exam, but I wasn’t one of them. Maybe if my parents had been school teachers themselves, they would have known how to badger the headmaster to coach their offspring for the exam. In the olden days (up to the 1970s) you couldn’t even apply to Oxbridge if you didn’t know Latin and Greek.

So. Gordon Brown and David Blunkett are raised against the 'elitism' of the Oxbridge system. I suppose worryng about university admission procedures is a reasonable activity for the minister for education: it gives him something useful to do when he isn’t expressing opinions about the precise toilet arrangements at Summerhill School. Its less obviously the province of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. There are noises about forcing the universities (both of them) to adopt a quota system, or putting the admissions procedure in the hands of an independent recruitment agency. And much muttering of the word 'elitist'—although how exactly Oxbridge can remain 'the top university' without being 'elitist' is open to question. I think that the SAS is elitist for only admitting the best soldiers.

I am now going to say something offensive and controversial which is going to set me up as an elitist force of conservatism:

'The reason that Oxbrige admits more people from private schools than from state school is that public schools were set up in order to get people into Oxbridge, and the state schools weren’t.'

I am very happy to take all the old socialist arguments as read. Yes, it’s outrageous that the only way you can get a public school education is to pay for it; yes, it’s undoubtedly the case that the merest thicky who's been to Eton and coxed the rugby team has an advantage over a clever oik when applying for a job as a spy; yes, the ethos of the public schools is still lodged in somewhere in the middle of the eighteenth century; and yes any family who voluntarily sends their child to a boarding school ought to be made to polish the boots of the cricket team on Saturday afternoon for a whole term. This is not, for the moment, the point. The point is that the reason why more public school get more of their children to Oxbridge than the state schools is that that is what they were set up to do. (I imagine that more children from prep-school than state primary schools go to public school, precisely because the whole point of the prep school is to get you through what I understand is called the common entrance exam.)

The admissions board at Oxbridge stand accused of being so scandalously off-message that they think that exam results are not the only way of measuring cleverness. They think that you can have good exam results and not be clever; or have less good exam results and still be clever. New Labour, on the other hand, think that Exam Results are the be-all and end-all of education. (Tests for five year olds. 'League tables' of schools based on exam results. Teachers, if you can believe it, to get better salaries based on the test and exam results of their classes.) Two irreconcilable forces. And even though neither side is very pretty, I have no doubt that in this case it is Oxbridge and the public schools who are in the right.

'Oxbridge' is a bunch of clever people who have been educating other clever people, on and off, for something like a thousand years. Over the centuries, they became pretty good at it. The public schools came into being in order to teach children how to have the type of cleverness which Oxbridge wanted you to have before they’d take you on. And then along came The State and set up its own schools, and made attendance at them compulsory, and then invented a National Curriculum and made the teaching of that compulsory, and introduced annual tests from age 5 and said that test results are the only possible way of judging cleverness. But Oxbridge stuck to its guns and said that it didn’t necessarily trust the states examination system. So the state is going to come in and say that people who have passed the state exams have got an inalienable right to go to Oxbridge, whether Oxbridge wants them or not.

One wonders what would have happened if the State had forced Oxbridge to take the little girl with the big list of qualifications, and if Oxbridge had turned out to be right and she’d flunked her exams (say because you can get an 'A' grade A level by being conscientious and memorising facts, but can only get through Oxbridge finals by knowing how to apply knowledge creatively.) Would Gordon Brown have come along and told them that this was the fault of their elitist teaching system and they had to give her a First anyway?

If we think Oxbridge is a Good Thing (and if we think it is a fuddy duddy conservative out of date ivory tower with baskets on the front of its bikes still teaching old fashioned rubbish like history rather than up to date stuff like internet studies then why are we so worried about who is and isn’t allowed to go there?), then we can agree that it is a Bad Thing that only Public School kids can get places there. The solution to this is to change the style of education at state schools so that more kids can get through the entrance exam and the interview. The solution is not to change the entrance criteria of the university to fit in with the sort of education that state pupils happen to get. This would be literally like moving the goalposts, or as I suppose we should say, the croquet hoops. It would be saying 'We must get rid of the things which make Oxbridge unique in order that more people can go there.'

This is, to coin a phrase, an academic discussion. I have no idea just how good an Oxbridge education really is. For all I know, their examination system really is snobby and elitist, sorting people on the basis of posh accent rather than academic excellence. For all I know you get a 'better' education at a Poly.

But I don’t, for the moment, care. The depressing situation is that Oxford and the Public schools seem to represent a diminishing number of dissenting voices–a vestige of education and therefore of knowledge which is not under the control of the State. It's depressingly predictable that New Labour want to stamp them out.