Sunday 22 October 2017

Blindingly Obvious

A cliché, by definition – my definition anyway – is a phrase that has been so overused it has lost its meaning. A classic example is the oft-used 'blindingly obvious'. This means, or rather meant, so obvious that it was no longer apparent, could no longer be seen. Nowadays it is used to mean merely very obvious. This is a shame, as some things are indeed blindingly obvious – so obvious that no one, apparently, sees them.
  I think there's a case in point in the current brouhaha over alleged 'social apartheid' being practised by Oxford and Cambridge universities. This is of course risible nonsense: the only admissions policy in operation is what it has always been – to select the best applicants. Not necessarily those with the best grades (these two universities wisely rely more on their own entrance exams), but those who will be best suited to the peculiar conditions of an Oxbridge education. That is still what is happening; what has changed is that the state schools are, for various reasons, not providing enough such applicants. So there is, inevitably, an apparent bias towards 'privileged' applicants from private schools.
 When I was at Cambridge, the proportion of entrants from state schools was nearing fifty per cent (I think in my college it was already over that mark). That rising trend would have continued but for one thing – and this is where the 'blindingly obvious' comes in – the abolition of the grammar schools. Whatever the faults of the old grammar / secondary modern system, the grammar school was an astonishingly effective engine of social mobility, propelling unprecedentedly large numbers of bright but 'deprived' children into good universities and top jobs (five consecutive state-educated Prime Ministers in the grammar school era). It was a social ladder like no other, and the imposition of 'comprehensive' education kicked it away, with the result that a far lower proportion of state-school pupils are now equipped for studying at the elite universities (and even those that are often receive no encouragement or preparation from their schools). Instead of bleating about 'social apartheid', the politicians should seriously consider the state of public education and do something serious about it. They might, for example, ponder the fact that this is the only developed country where school leavers are less literate and numerate than their grandparents. How did that happen?


  1. Hear hear! I was the product of a Grammar School which played a big role in helping me to get to Cambridge (after you Nige). Many of my friends were similar. They included the son of a market trader from Bury, a Lawyer from Wigan and a scientist from Catholic Glasgow. All from similar schools.

  2. Dear Sir, coming from over the pond, where things are different, I was intrigued by all this class and schools stuff. I went online and found this statement, which seems to conflict with what you say, so maybe there is still a debate to be had on this matter: 'The claim that “the percentage of state school students at Oxbridge has actually declined since the decimation of England’s grammar schools in the 60s and 70s” is a common one, in this case made by Toby Young. Michael Portillo made the same suggestion on an edition of the This Week TV programme in 2013

    The House of Common Library has analysed this question in papers titled “Oxbridge Elitism”, the most recent published in June 2014. It found that the proportion of state pupils at either Oxford or Cambridge was 26% in 1959 and 37% in 1964. This rose to 43% in the early 1970s, when the majority of students would still have taken the 11+. By 1981, when two thirds of students overall would have started in comprehensive schools, it jumped to 52%. In 2012 the Telegraph reported that 55% of admissions at Oxford and 66% at Cambridge were now from state schools, though the Cambridge figure did slip in 2013.'

  3. Interesting figures, Newman - and surprising. This probably shows how much effort Oxbridge is making to take in state pupils - though the social engineers won't be happy till their state-private ratio exactly reflects what it is in the wider world, which wld take it over 90:10.
    But I think the real point is the social mobility one. What matters is not what happens to pupils who are likely going to do well anyway, whatever the system - it's what becomes of the 'disadvantaged' who are subject to so many anti-educational influences that they are far more likely to fail in a system that doesn't strongly counter those influences and provide a ladder away from them. It is specifically those pupils who, broadly speaking, were far more likely to thrive under the old grammar system and are far more likely to fail in the comprehensive system (as can be seen in the lamentable state of 'white working class' youth). Not getting to Oxbridge is the least of it!