Saturday, October 16, 2004

Aspiration - Addendum

My comments in my last post seemed to incite a much greater degree of comment than usual (ie all three of you who comment regularly all spoke up!). Anyway, a few other points were raised which I didn't really deal with in my original post, so I thought I would follow up on them a bit.

One of the concerns raised about the test was that it is much easier to be coached for this test than it is for the interview. Certainly, this is a much greater problem, as a well coached pupil can more easily be taken out of his or her comfort zone in a direct interview, where every single point has to be backed up, where glib generalisations are unacceptable. And therefore to a certain extent I can understand concerns about the use of the test to whittle down the number of applicants actually interviewed from 85% to 50%. However, in defence of the History Faculty, every year there will be a significant proportion of candidates who really should not be applying to Oxbridge - not necessarily that they aren't sufficiently intelligent, or even that they would not get the necessary grades, but more that they just wouldn't be suited to an Oxbridge education, with the special rigours of the tutorial system and the increased academic intensity. Provided that the interview does not get abolished, and a suitably high number of applicants are still interviewed (and even whittling down to 50% on the basis of the test will mean that there are over two candidates per place, if my memory serves me correctly). Furthermore, good coaching for the test can still be cut through; instead, the reasoning test gives further information as part of the applications process, and certainly much more relevant information than the essays that are currently demanded.

The other big argument put forward was that, although the arguments regarding "middle-class" language were misplaced, they could have some merit if twisted to mean that the introduction of a new test may put state school candidates off from applying. Now, I think that arguing this in quite that way is operating as a voluntary spin doctor for the SHA, but, nevertheless, there is some merit to that argument. Coming from a private school myself, I know that one of the factors influencing future aspirations is that you see a steady number of pupils in the years above you going to Oxbridge - when you reach that stage, you are quite easily able to make those sorts of comparisons, and, of course, benefit from a greater expertise both through the experience of your teachers and knowing the students personally.

The problem, however, is not that private school pupils are overprivileged for finding themselves in this situation. It is more that the state school system does not encourage greater aspirations in its own students. If a test that allows a student to show off his or her capability of achieving great things academically deters bright students from state schools, it is a sad indictment of the teaching they receive. Any educational system must have at its heart a desire to encourage the best and the brightest to try to achieve the most that they can, and more. Yet this week I read that study showed that 40% of state school pupils achieving three grade As at A-Level did not apply to ANY of the top THIRTEEN universities in the country. No wonder there are such constant accusations of bias against state school pupils - large numbers of the best aren't even putting themselves in the position where they might be accepted into Oxbridge. Blame can be shifted around as much as you like - accuse Oxbridge of not doing enough to encourage applications from certain schools (although this is most definitely misplaced); blame the government for continually "running down" the academically elite institutions for their own political purposes (but God help anyone who criticises the NHS...) - but at the end of the day, the state sector must do its own soul searching. There is no good reason why the introduction of any sort of test should deter anyone capable of taking it from applying to Oxford. Yet rather than getting down to the business of selling this to their pupils, leading figures in the state sector prefer to bleat about bias. If their candidates are good enough to get in, they should be able to get in whatever the system. And their teachers should be encouraging them, not moaning to the press about how unfair everything is.