Why don’t state school pupils apply to Oxbridge? I’ve got an inkling…

At the other universities my daughter visited, the presentations were inspired

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State school rates of entry to Oxbridge are still far too low for comfort. Cambridge, with 61 per cent of its graduates coming from the state sector, and Oxford, with only 57 per cent, say they both bend over backwards to dispel the idea that their portals are thronged with members of the Bullingdon Club carrying teddy bears and an overweening sense of entitlement, but these figures show that state schools remain years away from being proportionately represented.

Now the Sutton Trust, which campaigns for improved social mobility in education, suggests that state school teachers are at fault, with more than 40 per cent “rarely or never” advising academically gifted children to apply to Oxbridge.

I wonder. Even if state schools went on about Oxbridge to the exclusion of all other universities, I think there would still be a problem. It’s not just about how these two places market themselves, but also an overbearing complacency about their unquestioned global status. I recently took my eldest daughter – who is at St Marylebone, an all-girls state school in central London – to Cambridge for one of its “open” days.

Perhaps mindful of the £9,000 annual fees, every university in the land now holds these beauty parades. The moment we got off the train at Cambridge station, Phoebe noticed a signal difference.

Manchester, Bristol, Newcastle and Nottingham, which are also on her radar, had all made a bit of an effort to form a Welcoming Committee. Students in T-shirts, parading up and down the station platforms and in the city centres, bearing friendly signs showing directions for the newbies – nothing formal, but perfectly pitched for a 17-year-old. At Cambridge? We didn’t have a scooby. You were left to wander around with your smartphone as a guide.

Eventually, we discovered the History of Art department and settled down to be inspired. We were told that during the first year, special study would be given only to art works within Cambridge. Which saves on train fares to see stuff at the National Gallery, I suppose. After a dreary hour cantering around the rest of the syllabus, the lecturer showed a 1950s-style picture of people in blazers and Laura Ashley dresses quaffing wine on a lawn. “Here is a slide of one of our regular drinks parties,” she chirped.

After this, we went to the English department, where a member of the English faculty went through the course. She analysed a poem by Herbert, and explained that literature from other cultures (America, Africa, etc) would be looked at during one term in the final year.

Obviously I am not suggesting that Cambridge – or Oxford, for that matter – is academically unsound. Both institutions are spectacularly brilliant in terms of learning, research and ideas. Once you get there. But it was clear for this Open Day that Cambridge simply couldn’t be bothered. The presentations were routine, as if to say, “Look, we are hopelessly oversubscribed.  Come if you like. Don’t if you don’t. Whatevs.” Reading a photocopied handout would have been more engaging. 

At the other universities Phoebe visited, the presentations were delivered by the professors heading up the departments. They were engaging; they inspired her imagination; whether on Children’s Literature at Newcastle, the folios of Shakespeare at Bristol, or a radical re-interprentation of Middlemarch at Glasgow. They made her want to study there.

“Disappointing,” was her summary. “Well, we should probably go and have a look at some of the colleges,” I suggested. We walked into Peterhouse, and joined a group of 20 or so teenagers with their parents and our student guide. We walked into an ancient hall with a hammerbeam roof. A lady in a Liberty print dress announced herself. “Is it true that Cambridge is biased against private school students?” she boomed. “My son is privately educated.” The guide smiled reassuringly. “No, of course not. Loads of people, ahem, are from private school.”

I am not making this up. We then walked behind the College and through a film-set style landscape of willows and flowers. “This is the where we play croquet,” said the guide, pointing out a perfect sward of green devoted to the purpose.

Peeling away before he could actually put a straw boater on and tempt us with any more, we popped over the road to Pembroke, where things were a bit more lively, but only just. Too late for me, I’m afraid. My dander was up, much to my daughter’s horror. “We have no black people here, but we do have people here who went to state schools, don’t we?” said the student on the table at the entrance, after I quizzed him about percentages and racial mix. He nudged his co-partner in the ribs. “You did, didn’t you?” “Oh yes!” squeaked the other. “I went to grammar school!”

We walked back to the station past people in punts and even more people taking photos from giant tourist buses. Maybe the Sutton Trust has a point, and teachers in state schools aren’t pushing their students forward. But perhaps part of the problem is that when students from outside the traditional avenues come, they are deeply unimpressed with what they see, even if it is just the packaging.

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