Only fools are impressed by parental connections, but they're important on Ucas forms

Plus: Why all the fuss about the Picturehouse buyout when our rich tapestry of cinemas is in tatters?


You could laugh, if it weren’t so sad. Now that A-levels are so perfectly useless in distinguishing the moderately competent from the highly gifted, universities have started to rely on the Ucas “personal statement”. This week, the Sutton Trust published some examples of these, contrasting the difference between ones written by state school pupils and those from private schools. The sample group all got three Bs at A-level, and were all applying to the same university.

One state school applicant wrote that they had been on a school trip to Cadbury World and had been given the opportunity of organising the school lockers in their GCSE year. Another said that he often watched Match of the Day. By contrast, one private school kid had shadowed the Indian ambassador to the United Nations. One atrocity wrote that she had worked for a London designer as a model, at a broker’s firm, with a BBC radio station, events planning at a country hotel, at a City law firm and “managing a small gastropub”. Obviously, if she hadn’t spent so much time badgering her parents’ friends to employ her, she’d probably have done better in her A-levels than three Bs. But never mind.

God knows how this madness started, or why it started to be accepted as any kind of indication of future promise. Obviously, all it indicates is how well connected your parents are, or at best how pushy the student is.

Do universities realise this? The excellent Mary Beard, hearing of this research, commented that she wasn’t “taken in by slick expensive personal statements on Ucas forms. We’re not that easy to con”. That, however, is a professor at Cambridge speaking. Seventy per cent of the applicants from private education were admitted to this study’s “leading university”, compared with 50 per cent with the same grades from state schools. A bit down the ladder from Cambridge, a day or two making a nuisance of yourself at your dad’s broker’s firm apparently makes all the difference.

The tragic thing is that a kid from a state school who takes a Saturday job at KFC has done it through his own initiative, without using connections, and is genuinely contributing in a small but useful way to the economy. He’s probably not going to want to have a career behind the counter at KFC. But he’s got a clear idea of what he wants, which is to fund his life for the moment and get to university. Anyone who regards that as less impressive than “we were in New York on holiday, and my daddy bought me a suit from Bloomingdale’s and arranged for me to follow his old friend around one afternoon and play at management consultant” is a fool.

Still, this explains a number of things, including why I occasionally get letters from the children of people I once met at a party, explaining that it has always been their “dream” to be a writer and how they have “always admired my writing” from a “surprisingly young age” and could they therefore “shadow” me in my daily routine some time soon? I don’t know how gripping it would be, watching someone read a book for three hours, which is my usual daily routine, but I dare say they would put up with it. The alternative, reading a book themselves in order to get into university, doesn’t seem very high on the agenda here.

Our rich tapestry of cinemas is in tatters

The Picturehouse chain of cinemas is being taken over by Cineworld, to howls of outrage. The Picturehouse cinemas are middle class; Cineworld is more of a brutal experience. Still, it seems an exaggeration to describe the Picturehouse cinemas as “art-house cinemas”. My nearest Picturehouse is showing Argo, Great Expectations – the new one – Seven Psychopaths, and Skyfall. My nearest Cineworld, on the other hand, is showing Seven Psychopaths, Skyfall, Argo and, just for a change, Nativity 2: Danger in the Manger. On the other hand, you can get wasabi-coated peas at the Picturehouse, which I dare say gives Skyfall an art-house edge.

The rich variety of cinema types in England only 30 years ago has disappeared. Not only the genuine art-house cinema, now more or less reduced to the excellent Curzon Soho, but the repertory cinema, too. In Oxford, there were three – the Ultimate Picture Palace, Not the Moulin Rouge and the Phoenix, which specialised in Herzog triple bills. It’s currently showing Great Expectations – the new one.

And then the Cambridge Arts Cinema, a charming little nook, where one summer I saw every single classic of the Italian cinema, or so it seemed – at 10 on a hot summer morning, I was the only punter to sit through L’Avventura, though the girl with the ice-cream tray still came out gamely at the intermission. Some of these repertory cinemas were real fleapits. The beloved old Scala in King’s Cross existed on a diet of about 60 revolving films, some underground, some classics, some basically porn. The cinema shook every 90 seconds, thanks to the Tube running underneath. The back rows were often devoted to pot smoking and/or group sex. Nowadays, if you want to see a famous old classic in the cinema, you have to go to the BFI on the South Bank, where I understand group sex in the back rows is disapproved of.

Nobody made any money out of repertory cinemas, so they closed. But I don’t know how we’re supposed to get to know the great mass of cinema history. On DVDs? On YouTube? It’s not the same. Until the Picturehouse chain starts running Pasolini triple bills for the hell of it, I don’t really care who owns or runs them.

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