Thursday, October 14, 2004

"Middle-Class Language"

Yet again, the attempts of Oxbridge to introduce greater rigour into their admissions processes meet with the derision of those who are supposed to have the best interests of education at heart. Oxford has announced it will introduce a historical reasoning test as part of the application process - from all appearances, a well-designed test, that does its best to overcome the difficulty that in history you have to test both what a candidate knows and how a candidate thinks. Some people, however, are never pleased. And once again, it is the bleating of elitism that gets published in the national press.

Nothing that Oxbridge can do, other than ripping up their entrance procedures and allowing a statistical formula to decide who attends their institution, seems to be able to placate those hell-bent on destroying our educational standards. First the entrance exam was elitist, or favourable to public schools. Then that was abolished under government pressure, and the interview system was deemed to be elitist. Now that subject specific tests are being used as a supplement to the wealth of other data that Oxford collects, accusations are being levelled that it uses "middle-class language" and therefore inimical to the ridiculous and offensive "benchmark targets" of access.

Many of my posts before have hinted at my disgust for introducing quota figures, and I will probably deal with this in greater detail at a later date. What angers me greatly about the new benchmark targets is that they are deliberately designed to create the impression that Oxford is an out of date, snobbish institution, when those of us who study here know that, certain limited circles excepted, nothing could be further than the truth. Worse still, coming from a body that is supposedly knowledgeable about education, it bases its figures on the UCAS points tariff, which includes vocational qualifications almost totally unsuitable for education at an academic institution like Oxford. Not that these qualifications are not valuable - but confusing the vocational and academic spheres only serves to cheapen them both.

It is equally disappointing that those criticising the introduction of the new test are those who are supposed to be upholding the standards and aspiring for more - in this case, the head of the Secondary Heads Assocation. They claim that A-Level is a perfectly useful gauge of a students ability in terms of university application - ignoring the soaring number of pupils who get A grades (rendering it increasingly unhelpful in discerning the best candidates) and informally blocking moves towards A* grades at A-Level because private schools would have an even greater disproportionate success. Furthermore, it is possible to go through an A-Level history course without ever really developing skills that are fundamental parts of the university education, and still achieve very high marks. Indeed, the new curriculum 2000 gives greater assistance to less well-prepared pupils, given the relative paucity of the curriculum actually examined. In any case, A-Levels serve a broader function than that of the university degree, often testing different skills (and certainly a lower level of logical reasoning), and to suggest that sheer statistical formulae can be applied to test the reliability of Oxford admissions is foolish and futile.

I wonder what would happen if these people had existed in a time when entry to Oxbridge really wasn't open to the working class, when situations in education were genuinely prejudiced on the elite looking down on those from a lower social station. We live in a culture of culpability, where anyone but ourselves are to blame. What the hell does "middle-class language" mean anyway? All tricky terms in the test are defined in a glossary - and if, as I suspect, they are referring to the use of conceptual historical terms, why the hell isn't our state education system teaching everyone capable of going to Oxbridge what they mean? Oxford has no interest in taking anything other than the best candidates - the tutors have to teach them themselves, and they have their worldwide reputation to defend. Forcing change in admissions procedures will not do anything to secure the world-class education we should be demanding our best students receive. If the head of the SHA really thinks these tests are biased and unfair, then he is unfit to be head of the SHA. In education we want skilled people who can instil in the children of today the ability to learn more than we can. To cry foul at any intellectually rigorous measure that can be introduced insults all of us, not least the pupils the SHA are supposed to be looking after. Raising standards, and giving people the most appropriate education, should be the only criteria in judging the education system.