Oxford plea for fee school ban

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The Independent Online
OXBRIDGE dons swear that they lean over backwards to give the best possible chance to state school applicants. Public school heads accuse some colleges of lowering their entry standards.

But the students of Wadham College, Oxford, believe that the ancient universities should lean much further. In the best traditions of a student union that once wrote into its constitution the stipulation that the song 'Free Nelson Mandela' should be played at the end of every fortnightly bop, Wadham has voted that Oxford should ban pupils of fee-paying schools entirely.

Their case rests on startling figures. For all the universty's efforts, the proportion of state school students admitted to Oxford has fallen from 50 per cent to 42.1 per cent since 1980. Arguments that state school pupils fail to apply or that their qualifications are inferior do not stand up, the students say.

State school applicants to Oxford have a significantly better chance of success than those from fee-paying institutions. And, nationally, the state schools provide two-thirds of the students who achieve 26 points or more at A-level (each A grade at A-level counts 10 points, B eight, and so on).

These figures persuaded Daniel Elger, a DPhil student at Wadham - 48 per cent of whose students went to public school - to propose the motion that discrimination against independent schools would 'benefit state education by giving the people who run this country a vested interest in the State sector'.

Mr Elger admits that the proposal has no realistic chance of adoption. But it has, he says, 'succeeded in its real aim of drawing attention to the shocking fact that in this day and age we've actually been seeing a fall in the number of people coming to Oxford from state schools'.

The reason, he believes, is that public schools have remained rich while the state schools have suffered a loss of resources.

John Flemming, the Warden of Wadham, has conceded that, although the measure is 'illiberal', he sympathises with its aims.

But many students think it is all utterly ridiculous. They point out that only 72 students out of a possible 400 attended the debate, and that only 49 voted in favour of Mr Elger's motion, of whom about 20 were themselves public school products.

Joanna Dunn, 21, reading psychology at St Catherine's, agreed. 'The people involved are a real clique, all the kind of people who go on marches. Everyone I know thought it was a load of crap.'

Such opponents point out that Wadham students have a long history of radicalism, once renaming a quad after the Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh and so persistently tearing down a plaque dedicating its library to the Shah of Iran's sister - regarded as an emblem of a right-wing regime - that it was eventually renamed after a Persian poet.

One ex-Wadhamite, who left four years ago said: 'When I was there it had the biggest membership of the Socialist Workers' Party in the university - it was incredibly extreme. It sounds like absolutely nothing has changed. I thought they calmed down after the fall of communism, but this vote proves me wrong. Because I had leanings towards the right, and because I admitted I was a public schoolboy, I was virtually hounded out of college.'

Lavinia Brown, 18, who arrived four weeks ago to read French and Spanish, said: 'Maybe they've got a point that there are too many people from public school but banning them isn't the solution. I went to Westminster but I wanted to come to Wadham partly because I thought it didn't discriminate. Now it seems it does.'

Another fresher, James Atkinson, 19, who was at state school, agreed. 'It's just going to cause animosity between state and public school students. I wouldn't want to see a ban.'

The student union president, Ashwin Kumar, remains strongly in favour. He is calling for the university to stop paying lip service to positive discrimination and take action - training tutors in interview technique, reassessing presentation in prospectuses and reviewing the list of schools automatically sent brochures of the college.

'Part of the problem is that the university will release no detailed statistics on the gender, race or educational bias of admissions,' he says. 'The fact is that within Oxford there is an inertia about improving things and yet there is a burning need for change if it is truly to achieve academic excellence.'

One student, rebelling against the party line, offers his own solution in 'Wadham Sound', the college newsletter which adorns every lavatory door.

'Firstly it would make sense to reject anyone with a double-barrelled name,' he explains. 'Secondly, ban the use of cravats, Volvos, words like OK yah and golden retrievers within six miles of Carfax (the centre).

'I mention this for I feel my proposal to be less prejudiced and blatantly discriminatory, less blinkered and more feasible, and better aimed at the fact that it is the white middle class who fill this university.'

(Photograph omitted)