Libby Purves: Teachers are killing off the Oxbridge dream
Libby Purves highlights Sutton Trust Oxbridge teacher polling in her regular Times column.
Talking to some sixth-formers about journalism back in 2001, the topic turned to degree choices. They were a bright bunch, and in the time-honoured manner of media Eeyores I cautioned against certain shiny-but-shallow courses because most editors and employers seemed to prefer degrees in history, English or law. Several asked about English, so I advised them to look carefully at courses, which differ widely.
So far so good. But when I illustrated the differences between the courses at Oxford and at Cambridge, it seriously irked the teacher. “We don’t mention Oxbridge or encourage applications,” she said. “It’s setting them up to fail.”
Roll on five years, to a summer school in Cambridge for state sixth-formers, run by Sir Peter Lampl’s Sutton Trust. Some of the kids had been encouraged by their school, but others ruefully said that it took three or four tries before they could find a teacher willing to sign the summer-school application. Several were told to have nothing to do with Cambridge: “You won’t get in, and you wouldn’t fit in anyway.” One boy was blandly informed that “students at those places commit suicide”.
I assumed that things had changed in the decade since then, but I was wrong. The latest Sutton Trust survey shows that four out of ten state school teachers “rarely or never” advise Oxbridge applications, for the same reasons I met: you won’t get in, or fit in. Only a fifth routinely suggest it. A larger number, by the way, offer no advice at all, thus leaving their charges open to the glitzy estate-agentish publicity drives of the uni marketplace.
Most of the teachers ignorantly underestimated the chances of any non-private pupil going to Oxford or Cambridge. More than a fifth insisted that these premier universities had fewer than 20 per cent of students from state schools, while the figure is actually three times greater. Public schools with their interview coaching and contacts no longer have an open goal. Outreach projects can work. But it doesn’t help to have thousands of teachers actively dissuading their brightest from even having a go.
Read the full article here. (£)