Oxbridge: why state schools prepare you well, but need to raise expectations

3 Dec

Today Frank Field pointed out the crucial role families play in educating their children, saying “it is family background, parental education, good parenting and the opportunities for learning and development in those crucial years that together matter more to children than money, in determining whether their potential is realised in adult life.”  http://www.channel4.com/news/child-poverty-support-better-than-benefits

The following is from a piece I wrote for Times’ School Gate blog, published yesterday:

With Oxbridge interviews soon to get under way, I’m running a few pieces on two of the most famous universities in the world. On Tuesday, Olivia Williams gave her interview tips and today Emily Holman writes about her journey from state school to Cambridge. She’s keen to change attitudes and thinks that state schools have their own part to play…

“State educated children are seven times less likely to go to the UK’s best universities than those who have been privately educated.  But is it really as simple as a state–public divide? I don’t think so. As a Cambridge graduate who also went to a comp, and a staunch refuser of the idea that this makes me unusual, I’m adamant that a state education can benefit you as much as a public one.

My state school was just outside of Croydon. I like to point that out, as though being just beyond the bounds of Croydon in geographical terms would stop the clichés of Croydon behaviour from seeping in. Sadly not: at my school, students threw chairs at teachers. Being bullied meant you’d had bones broken. Pupils accrued hundreds of hours in community service after being sent to court; friends got pregnant at 14.  It wasn’t quite the type of comp where the chances of you getting into a fight were bigger than the chances of you getting a GCSE, but it was pretty likely you wouldn’t reach GCSE year without having either been in or witnessed at least two fights per term.  At the age of 13, a boy from my form was tried for GBH.

So what on earth led to me, seasoned as I was to every state school stereotype, getting into Cambridge? Unfortunately I can’t tell you the secret to getting a place (I remain surprised by the success of my application to this day), but I can tell you that what was significant was the application itself.  It was the fact that I had contemplated applying that marked me out from my classmates, not that I got in.

Some of my peers had never heard of Oxbridge; how, then, could they have known to apply? To these students – low on ambition (because unaware of opportunity), but as thriving in potential as any public school kid – the school gave little encouragement in terms of higher education.  Staff tended to attend only to those who already stretched themselves.

I was one of the lucky ones.  My parents had taught me to always do my best.  Though low middle-class in terms of jobs, they were positive royalty in terms of mindset.  Thanks to them, I saw school as a resource.  All the opportunities (okay, not lacrosse, not horse riding lessons or etiquette, but all the basic opportunities) were there.

Teachers were largely good.  Some were inspiring, some not.  Looking back, that lottery of quality was fine life training – of a type that is missing from many public schools, whose students take excellence for granted.  My parents insisted that I couldn’t view the guidance of others as a natural-born right, only as a bonus.  If a teacher wasn’t up to my expectations, then I knew I had better find a solution.  Many of my friends, though, saw bad teaching or limited facilities as a reason to give up.

State school is superb preparation for the self-sufficient style of learning that university introduces.  (Well into my first year at Cambridge, several public school friends – boys in particular, interestingly – were still finding it hard to adjust to not being spoonfed anymore.)  The risk is whether or not the state kids will have thought to apply to university.

State school emphatically does not spoonfeed you.  How you do is up to you.  That, more than anything else, is the reason state schools have a bad reputation.  Students can flounder or flourish.  I saw friends at least as intelligent as me in the early years of secondary school give up; they had grown bored.  The boy to whom I owe my maths GCSE dropped out of sixth form because he couldn’t see what good it would do.  A girl who had always said she wanted to be the first in her family to go to university ended up disappearing in year 12 to get married.  She did not see education as relevant to family-life.

Thanks to the attitude of my family, I saw school as a means to an end.  I used it as best I could, and it served me well.  Ultimately, I applied to Cambridge because I couldn’t see any harm in at least trying.  That was where I stood out.  What is the biggest pitfall of the state system? Not pushing the kids.  Pupils there are as brainy as pupils anywhere – but too many do not believe in themselves and do not see the point in trying hard; they just don’t think it will get them anywhere.  They are more likely to believe in the X-factor route to riches.  In my year, those who did apply to university largely opted for average institutions: they didn’t believe they could do better.

That lack of self-belief is the saddest, most destructive consequence of the state-public school divide. It is most likely amplified by the harping on about how rubbish state schools are.  The (groundless) paranoia of their inferiority is the worst enemy of state school students; and it is exacerbated by staff concentration upon those with more obvious promise.”


One Response to “Oxbridge: why state schools prepare you well, but need to raise expectations”

  1. Harry Bullivant December 4, 2010 at 7:15 pm #

    Hi Emily,
    Here here. Having come through to Cam for similar reasons I completely agree. There were much smarter people than me at my school, but (to my frustration) they didn’t have the aspiration, ambition or whatever it takes to want to want to apply to Oxbridge. What’s more frustrating now is the lack of ambition of my school in inspiring it’s students to want to aim for Oxbridge and also an apathy towards using alumni like me as a useful resource and example for students thinking of applying. I’ve been back almost every year since leaving and despite some keen studets I get little enthusiasm from the relevant teachers. Perhaps as such, only three of us have ever been undergrads at Oxbridge in the seventeen years the school has been around.
    I’ll keep on trying, but it’s a challege to maintain the enthusiasm to go back when faced with such apathy!
    Best, Harry

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