Going to Oxbridge is possible – with the right approach

Going to Oxbridge is possible – with the right approach

by Stuart Crawford
article from Monday 17, December, 2018

MUCH FLUTTERING in the doo’cots last week when it was reported that just eight schools in the UK dominate entrance to Cambridge and Oxford Universities. It would appear that over the past three years these schools – assumed to be mainly private and include Eton, Winchester and St Paul’s – send more pupils up to Oxbridge than three quarters of all other schools combined, according to research carried out by the Sutton Trust. Predictably, the usual class warriors and social equality bleaters are up in arms.

To be absolutely honest I’m not in the least surprised at this piece of “news”. Having managed to bluff my own way into Cambridge at the second attempt I am no stranger to the arcane arts of getting a place there, albeit my experience was a fair few years ago. But more of this later.

The reason these eight schools are getting more of their kids into Oxbridge is because they’re very good at it. Just like Andy Murray is good at tennis, Paul McCartney is good at writing songs, and Alfredo Morelos is good at getting sent off (while maybe scoring goals? Ed.), their success comes from practice, in some cases over hundreds of years. Some of them have been doing it since the year dot. No wonder they’re good at it.

And success breeds success. Those who think they might have the brains, talent and aspiration to go to Oxbridge are drawn to these successful schools like moths to a candle. They will probably find that a disproportionate percentage of their teachers at these schools will themselves be Oxbridge graduates and they will know the score. In essence these few elite schools are Oxbridge factories.

Compare and contrast the fortunes of their pupils with the prospects for a laddie or lassie o’pairts attending your average state secondary in, say, Auchtertumshie. The teachers may be just as motivated and dedicated as their private school counterparts, but their experiences are most likely to be quite different. They will be, of course, well versed in the Scottish education system and equally well qualified to advise accordingly.

And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with our Scottish universities, of course, they are generally recognised as first class institutions.  As a patriotic Scot I have oftentimes reminded my English friends and contemporaries, especially if they’re getting a wee bit uppity, that we had four universities when they had but two.

However I think the consensus seems to be that Cambridge and Oxford set the benchmark for UK universities. So, back to the conundrum that is how to break the stranglehold that these eight aforementioned schools have on admission to Oxbridge.  Others like Marthe de Ferrer have written compellingly in the Huffington Post that action as early as primary school level is required. My personal view is that broadening entry to these elite universities needs action in two other areas.

The first of these is at the career adviser level in schools. How many of these individuals, I wonder, have taken it upon themselves to study how the entry system works and pass on that expert knowledge to their pupils? I suspect the answer is not many, but I’d be happy to be proved wrong. Contrast that if you will with the career advisers at elite schools, who are probably not only Oxbridge graduates themselves but will be intimately familiar with the procedures and processes involved.

The second concerns aspiration. In Scotland we talk often about poverty, and goodness knows we have enough of it, but we seldom talk about poverty of aspiration. I suspect that for large swathes of the population a university education at Cambridge or Oxford isn’t even considered a possibility, no matter how bright and talented prospective university graduates may be.  It may be considered as “not for people like us”, which is both quite wrong and also redolent of all the worst aspects of the Scottish Cringe. Of course you can get into Oxbridge if you’re good enough, but you won’t get in if nobody even encourages you to try. How to get this message across to the wider population I do not know, but surely the education sector has to take the lead?

Let me illustrate from my own personal experience of getting into Cambridge. Yes, I was at a private day school – Hutchesons’ Boys Grammar School as was then – but I was hardly the cleverest boy in my class, let alone year. But I had the huge advantage of having parents who thought, and practised, that anything was possible if you tried hard enough. And it was just presumed I would go to university as both my parents had done.  So as I entered the university admissions timeframe, I met with the school’s career adviser and told him I wanted to apply for Cambridge. I cannot remember his response accurately but it was along the lines of “don’t be ridiculous”.

Despite this rebuff, and the fact that my Higher grades were hardly straight As, I persisted and awaited his advice on how to proceed. It quickly became apparent that (and I’m aware I’m speaking ill of the deid here, but I don’t think he’ll mind somehow) – he didn’t have a clue. So I ended up applying for King’s College, Canbridge, probably one of the hardest to get into, because he didn’t really know of any others. Off I trotted in the train to Cambridge for my interview and, hardly surprisingly, failed, because I had no idea what to expect or what they might be looking for.

Fortunately, I was then given the opportunity to complete my schooling at Millfield School in Somerset, a well known innovative boarding school with a reputation, at the time, for “slow boys and fast girls”. It was not considered an academic school, but one that sought to ensure its pupils reached their true potential, and in addition was and is well-known for its sporting prowess.

Anyway, when I arrived there I went to the careers master and told him I wanted to try for Cambridge. He merely asked me what college I had in mind, and when I said I had no idea, he said he’d ‘phone a couple of contacts and get back to me, which he did. And so I applied accordingly, got accepted, and that was that. I still had to pass the entrance exam, mind, and that wasn’t easy, but I got there in the end. Getting in is the hard part; once you’re in you’re in, and nobody ever asks afterwards what grade you got. The fact that you went there is good enough for most purposes.

My point being that if an academically selective, fee-paying, private Scottish school didn’t have a clue what it was doing, what hope for a bright pupil from the fictional Auchtertumshie State Secondary? And whilst I have no doubt that Hutchie Grammar has upped its game since those far off days, I suspect a gaping chasm still remains. In Oxbridge entrance, as in almost every walk of life, knowledge is power.

A final point; whilst studying amongst the glittering spires of Cambridge or Oxford might seem the very apogee of academic achievement, it isn’t for everyone. I reckon that about 50 per cent of the folk I know who went to either didn’t enjoy the experience very much. I think for some people better fun can be had, and a more appropriate educational experience enjoyed, at some of the other excellent universities in the UK. But if you really want to go to Oxbridge, and you think you’ve got what it takes, don’t be put off. No matter what background you come from or what other people think, it can be done.

© Stuart Crawford 2018 Stuart Crawford is a writer and social commentator.

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