All animals are equal

A couple of weeks ago, as A-level students began their scramble for the last university places, I read a statistic that made me want to weep: last year, of 80,000 children who were eligible for free school meals (i.e. the very poorest kids in the country), only 45 got to Oxford or Cambridge (less than 0.06%).

I’ve read disheartening statistics before (e.g. that Oxbridge gets over half of its students from the privately educated 7% of the population or that the 70th brightest pupil at Westminster or Eton is as likely to get a place at Oxbridge as the very brightest pupil at a comprehensive) but this statistic in particular just made me want to weep.

I would like to meet those 45 kids and shake their hands and tell them how incredible they are. You see, I was one of the kids who got free school meals; who got vouchers to buy their uniform; who wore a hand-me-down coat for six years running. I never thought of myself as a child who grew up in poverty – I still don’t – but some of the markers indicate that I did. It doesn’t really matter either way because I had a family I loved (for the most part), and I had ambition and smarts.

I’ve banged on about those smarts before but I’ve also admitted my regret in not aiming higher. Say what you want about Oxbridge and its alumni, there’s no denying that few UK universities can compare when it comes to future prospects (I won’t go into more stats but some relevant ones can be found here).

I’m not one of those bleeding hearts that think every poor kid should get a university education. It’s not for everybody and, as Aditya Chakrabortty explains in this piece, it can actually turn out to be pretty useless. I DO, however, think that there were more than 45 kids in that 80,000 that could have/would have/should have gone to Oxbridge.

These kids are being failed – by teachers, parents and politicians. They’re being failed by the system. We need a way to help the ones with potential. I’ve always believed that intelligence is more to do with nature than nurture. Either way, I don’t think it’s difficult to identify those with the most potential.

Take my nieces and nephews for example. There are 16 of them and I can identify the brightest two very easily (sorry sisters, I’m not saying which ones). I would like to pick out these two and help develop their ability. I know what you’re thinking: it’s unfair on the others and as divisive as the current system. That may be somewhat true but it’s not the majority that I’m heartbroken over; it’s the ones that can really make it but never do. They don’t constitute anywhere near 80,000 I’m sure but, for fuck’s sake, there’s got to be more than 45.

7 thoughts on “All animals are equal”

  1. > Shak

    As I said in the post: say what you want about Oxbridge, there’s no denying that few UK universities can compare when it comes to future prospects.

    Re. second comment, the point is these kids aren't feeling sorry for themselves 'after not being chosen by Oxbridge' because most of them don't even aim for that level. The applicant rates show that very few pupils from that demographic apply, hence my post isn't criticising Oxbridge but everything that comes before it (not to say they're entirely blameless).

    I'm very used to people belittling the importance placed on Oxbridge – that's nothing new. What I want to ask is: if you could change the schooling system completely, if you could help more of those 79,955 kids get to the top 2 universities in the UK, would you take a completely laissez faire attitude to it? If so, why? Because Oxbridge isn't worth it? Because cream rises to the top anyway? Because everyone has their place and these kids wouldn't fit in? These aren't rhetorical questions – I am genuinely curious.

  2. i did my phd on this topic. why the brightest inner-city kids don't apply. my research found that peer pressure was the factor that outweighed everything else. most teachers, outreach programmes and parents are extremely well-meaning (i was lucky enough to be one of the '45')

  3. Future prospects defined how? Money? Fame? If only 45 kids out of 80k who /wanted to go/ didn't get in, then I guess I'd have a bit more of a problem with the stat. Since many don't care for Oxbridge, well, I bet even fewer got into whatever the top stage school or art college happens to be too.


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