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Social Mobility, Public Schools and Oxbridge

May 22, 2012

Social mobility is in the news again recently. Nick Clegg is using it to promote the Pupil Premium and is today announcing forward-looking social mobility indicators which will apparently allow the Government to observe and possibly intervene earlier rather than later. There’s also been a lot of talk about public schools and Oxbridge university admissions. I think that a lot of the debate here is rather skewed – from enforcing minimum admission quotas through to banning public schools altogether.

To explain my position, I went to public school on a scholarship, and my parents worked their arses off to send me there nonetheless. I was the first person and only in my family to go to preparatory and public school. Academically, I did well at school – my A-level grades were AAAB. I liked most of my teachers, and a few of them really spurred my intellectual curiosity, particularly the maths teacher who, having finished the A-level curriculum early, spent my last summer term teaching us cryptography from Caesar to Diffie-Hellman between revision classes. It’s difficult to say how I might have fared at another school – one of my prep school classmates who went to the local grammar ended up getting better A-levels than me and a Double First in pure maths from Oxford, compared to my booze-soaked Desmond at UMIST. Certainly I was expected to go to Oxbridge, and chose not to out of a desire to escape the pubic school system in favour of a large student population in a vibrant city.

I think that the public school environment had a lot to do with my liberalism. Being surrounded by kids who largely had very few concerns about their future life in term-time, then going home to my rural village and drinking cheap lager on the Scout Hut roof with council house kids who were struggling to get menial employment gave me a sense of perspecive. Seeing some of the biggest vindictive bullies appointed to authority positions like Prefect and Head Boy, giving them more undeserved power to torment, made me very wary of unearned power.

In terms of University admission, Nick Clegg has already done one thing which has been widely ignored in this debate even when talking about admissions. He has required the Russell Group of “elite” universities to publish their admissions criteria. From this we learn that students who have studied core subjects at A-level, like Maths, Physics and English, are valued over students with equivalent grades in only more niche areas – even if those niche areas relate to the University course. We also see that public schools are getting more of their A-level students to take at least one of these core subjects at A-level.

This to me is highly interesting, and demonstrates an approach to University admission that isn’t based around quotas (which instinctively feel wrong to me as a liberal). We should look at why state schools are not getting more of their students good grades in these core subjects – if they find the niche subjects easier to teach and are chasing league table ratings, perhaps those ratings should be biased towards core subjects to make sure schools are encouraged to teach the subjects valued by top Universities. Perhaps the extra funding from the Pupil Premium is enough to help deliver that outcome, perhaps not – but if headteachers are chasing two contradictory goals, confusion will result.

However, in terms of social mobility, there’s more than just potential academic benefit. Part of what I missed out on by being a relatively poor pupil was the extracurricular activities with fellow pupils and the networking that goes with that. As part of this whole chicken-and-egg, my peers were more likely than average to end up in good jobs and good positions, and by rubbing shoulders with them I might have been able to build up useful relationships which would benefit me in my future life. This failed for me on two fronts – firstly, I was a geeky kid who didn’t fit in, and secondly, while my parents’ hard work and my scholarship got me into the school, it didn’t get me sent on the skiing holidays outside termtime and other places where my peers went to hang out together and form strong friendships. I remember a particularly cringeworthy school camping trip to the Lake District where my inability to afford a reliable pair of hiking boots meant I ended up staying at base camp with one of the teachers, sorting out the shopping and washing up while the rest took enjoyable romps over the hills.

I’ll admit then that I have no evidence that the friendships my peers made at public school were of material benefit in later life, but if that conventional wisdom is true, I don’t think that getting poorer pupils into public school, or Oxbridge, will automatically give them access to the kinds of networks and contacts that they’re supposedly missing out on. Or maybe just not being the fat geeky one who’d rather read Asimov than play football suffices; I don’t know.

To summarise then – getting kids from poorer backgrounds into public school won’t necessarily improve their ability to network at that age (though I doubt it’ll hurt it). It might make those kids more likely to get into Oxbridge through good teaching in core subjects, but there are other ways to address that problem. If employers look more favourably on Russell Group degrees and public school educations, then it might be useful to make sure a wider range of people get them. However, it still seems a little like tinkering around the edges rather than making sure that everybody gets a high quality primary and secondary education, has good literacy and numeracy by 16, and a wide range of both academic and vocational opportunities after that – this is where the Lib Dems are delivering in Government, and where I’m satisfied that the priority is correct.

As an aside, there are a couple of things, such as the charitable status of public schools and the new free schools and academies programme, which I haven’t mentioned here. While the former is worthy of debate I don’t think it’s directly relevant here, and I don’t think there’s enough evidence in terms of the social mobility outcomes to make any determinations about the latter – though Clegg’s new metrics announced today should help us make a determination sooner rather than later. Nor will I address George Monbiot’s claim that all private schools should be abolished, other than to say that it’s clearly fundementally illiberal, and attempts only to address the symptoms rather than the problems.

And on a finishing note, I’d like to point out that I’m not claiming to come from a poor background. My parents are solid middle class, probably the upper end of that, and I’ve had a privileged and comfortable upbringing – we just weren’t as well-off as many of the families we rubbed shoulders with at through my education, and I suspect that had an impact – which says something about the effects of getting people from poorer backgrounds into these institutions. I will also confess to getting one break out of public school – my first IT job was a summer programming job working for my maths teacher’s son, who later invited me back for future employment, giving me a useful CV boost.

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