This was written in January 2010 in response to an article by the headmaster of Harrow School.
Barnaby Lenon, headmaster of Harrow, a popular school in north-west London, said last week that state school pupils are being conned into believing that going to “any old university” will help them get on in life. Meanwhile, Chris Higgins, vice-chancellor of Durham, thinks we should just accept that some universities are better than others – actually, he says “different”, not “better”, but I think we can safely assume that he regards Durham as somewhat less different to Oxford than it is to, say, my local university, London South Bank – and thus more deserving of government money because… well, because someone has to pay for the new electrified gates to keep the chavs out of the cloisters, don’t they? Again, those weren’t his precise words, but I think that was the gist. All of this, of course, comes on top of David Cameron’s proposal that prospective teachers should have their student debts cancelled provided their degree is from a “good” university – a list of which will, I’m guessing, be drawn up after asking around the backbenches to see whose maters were especially alma.
Well, that puts the poor kid at South Bank in his place, doesn’t it?
Mr Cameron might not know it, but universities in this country actually subscribe to a system of external marking; they watch over each other to ensure that a 2:1 from Durham is equal to a 2:1 from South Bank. People like Barnaby Lenon and Chris Higgins think that’s just PC idiocy, of course: anyone can see that Durham and Oxford are better, they harrumph, just look at the quadrangles, the gowns, the number of students whose parents genuinely had no qualms about naming their offspring Barnaby – we’re clearly producing an elite.
Well, yes, you are, but it’s not an intellectual one. Durham’s intake, as befits an Oxbridge-wannabee, is disproportionately composed of kids who’ve been tutored and coached and crammed to one end only. They’ve had it instilled in them that a place at one of these “good” institutions is their right, and it doesn’t cross their minds that they should fetch up anywhere else. Although, in fairness, not much crosses their minds at all – it doesn’t need to. Staff at the redbricks and campus universities often complain that the kids coming out of the public schools are helpless: they’re not used to having to think for themselves, it seems, they’re used to having their hands held and to being gently rotated into position. Even worse, they resent their new tutors for not doing these things, for not telling them precisely which pages of which books to read – and then blame them when they fail. If you’ve been through the public school system, then you really do need to lurk somewhere in that small gap on the evolutionary line between glutinous sponge and minor royal to fail to get into a “good” university – heck, even Prince Harry could probably have made it if only someone could have asked his father to put in a good word.
The thing is, though, Barnaby and Chris are right: universities aren’t all equal. Some of them have more money. Which means they have well-endowed libraries, state-of-the-art labs, and one-on-one teaching. Which is why a kid coming out of South Bank with a 2:1 is actually likely to be far more intelligent than a kid coming out of Durham with the same qualification – he’s actually had to fight and cultivate some innate wit and intuition to get it. He’s even had to find a route through the subways at Elephant and Castle each morning that doesn’t involve making two unintended circuits of the Faraday memorial and bursting into tears on the steps of the Metropolitan Tabernacle, something I suspect no boatered boy from Harrow could manage without paying a native guide and borrowing Uncle Henry’s pith helmet. And surely that should count for more with a prospective employer or research council? It might even make him a good teacher. (Or her, I know, but that’s another argument.)
At Leyton High School, we were allowed to take only three A Levels. When I got to university – Bristol, in case you’re wondering – I suddenly met people with four or five, but it didn’t take me long to suss that they weren’t more intelligent; they’d just been to public schools, and fed through well-oiled cogs. They were not, except in their own minds, the crème de la crème. One, I remember fondly, needed to have it explained to her that you didn’t heat up a tin of baked beans by tipping the contents into boiling water – job well done, City of London School for Girls! Most of these people quickly crumbled in the face of having to think for themselves and demonstrate active intelligence and imagination – or retreated into socially exclusive cliques, knowing that bloodline and money would see them all right in the end. Those of us from the state schools, who’d actually got there on merit rather than, to put it bluntly, buying our way in, thrived.
Sadly, we don’t always thrive so well afterwards. Too many employers still look more favourably on those from cloistered halls, either because that’s their own background and some atavistic sub-masonic urge to look after one’s own kicks in, or because of some odd academic equivalent of the cultural cringe. Add to this the success-breeding-success sense of confidence that a public school/Oxbridge background instills in its alumni – a confidence visible only to those of us looking in from the outside, sadly, while those who benefit just assume it’s normal, and can’t understand what the rest of us are resentful of – and our poor kid graduating from South Bank, who’s basically just been told by David Cameron not to bother applying for jobs where he might be up against someone from a “good” university, might as well just go back to dealing crack from some bookless shuttered flat on the Aylesbury Estate. So, pending the implementation of a genuinely comprehensive education system, from primary school to PhD, here’s a suggestion: anyone who’s been to Oxbridge, or to public school, should automatically have 10% added to their income tax bill, for life. If they’ve been to both, it’s compounded. Just to level the playing field a bit. And then, what the hell, another 10% for anyone who’s had a gap year which involved wearing shorts.
No, Barnaby, old son, I’m afraid the real problem is that too many places on good university courses are being taken by kids who really just aren’t bright enough, and have got those places only because schools like yours – schools whose geographical catchment areas are rather larger than their social ones – aren’t, when faced with a famous father, or one who’s prepared to fund a new cricket pavilion, prepared to tell him that his offspring is just, well, a bit dim. After all, clever kids don’t actually need to be “stretched” and bullied into learning – they’re quite capable of expanding their own horizons, on account of being, well, clever. It’s the less able who need prodding. Not that the hard-faced mums in the 4x4s blocking the prep school gates in Dulwich will ever accept such a thing.
But, then again, perhaps they’re right. After all, with coaching and money, little enough shame and enough friends in high places, their resoundingly average progeny could still end up vice-chancellor of Durham, headmaster of Harrow, or leader of the Tory Party.