Nature, Nurture and Oxbridge Entry.


Blimey, two blog posts in a day!

I’ve been reading some of the coverage this morning of the Cambridge Union debate on the question: “This House Believes Oxbridge is a Finishing School for the Privileged” which featured, amongst others, the writer, journalist and former Tory MP Louise Mensch – a person I rather admire, as it happens.

Part of the debate apparently focused on the unlikely proposition that 40% of children intelligent enough to gain entry to Oxbridge should have parents rich enough to pay for them to have attended fee-paying schools. On the face of it that does seem pretty daft.  The Independent Schools Council website claims that 6.5% of children are educated in the independent sector so that figure of 40% of Oxbridge entrants coming from the private sector does suggest something odd is going on, not least because anyone with any experience of independent schools, as a pupil or teacher, will tell you that they certainly have their share of the dim-witted and doziest pupils.

So what is the advantage?

In my day job, I’m a member of a team that assesses and selects candidates for a large, well-established and – indeed – world-renowned professional educational establishment (I won’t bore you with the details).  This means that – week in, week out – for the past three-and-a-half years I’ve been scrutinising groups of young men and women as they undertake a range of tasks and tests over a four day selection board.  The basic educational standard for entry is pretty low: 180 UCAS points, which is equivalent to three grade ‘D’ A-levels; but the overwhelming majority are actually graduates (or on their way to earning a first degree) and a significant minority also have postgraduate degrees.

Along with essays, practical tests and so on, all the candidates complete a mental aptitude profile (MAP) – in effect, a refined IQ test.  The raw MAP is then weighted against their educational attainment (for example, a 2:1 or better degree provides a little uplift), performance in the written tests that we administer and observed performance in the practical tasks, to produce a score which we call ‘Intellectual Potential’ (IP).  This is their potential to cope with the intellectual demands of the professional training they’re applying for.

MAP and IP are scored by us on a scale from 0-9.  In the final selection process, those with an IP of 0, 1 and 2 cannot pass the process; those on a 3 can get through if they do particularly well in other aspects of testing; those on 4 and above will normally pass if they reach the required standard.  In effect, an IP 3 is regarded as ‘borderline’ ability to cope with training, 4 and 5 as ‘average’, 6 and above as ‘above average’ to ‘superior’.

The interesting thing is that most of the Oxbridge (and other top universities’) undergrads and graduates that I have seen have been more or less indistinguishable from the others in terms of their raw MAP.  We see the normal range coming through with most, as you would expect, in the 4-6 range.  There are some who score higher, but equally, some who are in the borderline and below category.

What distinguishes the candidates from Oxbridge (and, to be fair, most Russell Group universities) is their consistently high educational attainment.  It’s rare to see a Cambridge or Oxford graduate or undergraduate who hasn’t achieved pretty much all ‘A’ or ‘A*’ grades at both GCSE and A level examinations.  The slightly odd thing which I have noticed is that a significant number have achieved these excellent results with intellectual equipment which is, at best, average and sometimes below.

Which is where the privilege bit comes in.  What is clear to me is that there are a number of schools out there which can take a fairly ordinary child – in terms of intellect at least – and take him or her a very long way.  At a school like Eton, for example, the system for ‘Specialists’ (thats 6th formers to you and me) is actually very similar to a university tutorial system, and many of the teachers wouldn’t be at all out of place teaching at a university if they chose to.  Intellectual stimulation at this level can have a huge impact.

As well as the nurturing aspect of the way that some schools operate, there’s a degree of compulsion too.  Many top independent schools simply boot out children who don’t get sufficiently good GCSE grades and don’t let them enter the 6th form for A Levels.  It’s a harsh but effective way of keeping schools at the top end of the A Level league tables, if nothing else.

On it’s own though, this twin-pronged approach isn’t necessarily enough: it only works if the child goes along with the process.  And that’s quite a big ‘if’, in my view, because we also occasionally see super-bright (so MAP 8 and 9) candidates who have been at supposedly good schools who haven’t done at all well educationally, just scraping the qualifications necessary to get them through our door: they certainly hadn’t been bothering any Oxbridge admissions tutors.

On the other hand, it isn’t so unusual to see pupils from what Alistair Campbell memorably called ‘bog standard comprehensives’ who have managed to get the A grades that have got them into Oxbridge.  It’s a myth that the best teachers are all in the independent school sector – many of the best-motivated, best-qualified choose to remain in the State sector from pure idealism.  But it is unarguable that State-sector schools do not have access to the same resources as the top independent schools (Eton has a palazzo in Florence, for f**** sake!) and I suspect it’s fair to say that the learning environment will rarely be as encouraging.  Family and home environment strikes me as hugely important here, and many of the candidates I interview cite it as an important factor.  Even so, in my view the children who do well in these circumstances are genuinely truly extraordinary.

So what?  Well privilege clearly plays a part in filling Oxbridge.  Top independent schools have the resources, time and space to get a lot out of pupils who, in other circumstances, might not achieve very much (which is what parents are hoping when they stump up the extortionate fees).  Intelligence, on the other hand, may not be as crucial as most would think, an average IQ is fine.  But what strikes me as crucial is motivation, ambition and drive; and the ability to channel that into an effective work ethic from an early age.  This is something that the independent schools can, and do, nurture but they aren’t the only route.  My personal take is that the best candidates I see, and the ones who, I suspect, will achieve most in their lives, are the ones who have somehow dug it out for themselves.

Review: Jurassic World


I think I could be described as a ‘pragmatic optimist’.  If you ask me if glass is half-full or half-empty, my response is likely to be that it’s the wrong size.  So having lashed out my £13.99 on iTunes to download ‘Jurassic World’ (it’ll be cheaper here when it comes out on DVD in a week or so), I wasn’t really expecting much more than a couple of hours of dinosaur-based thrills and spills, not unlike the previous entries in the ‘Jurassic…’ genre.

Which turned out to be a wise thing.

(Do be aware that there are some – sort of – spoilers down below)

You can sort of imagine the script conference at the Steven Spielberg Jurassic Division offices on a smoggy LA Monday morning just before principal photography started.  There’d be a long conference table, strewn with dog-eared copies of the script and those irritating take-out coffee cups with lids, and perhaps the odd 500ml Evian bottle for the more health conscious.  Sitting slumped around the table is a small gaggle of casually dressed movie execs, some of whom are wearing baseball caps and at least one of whom – who has a beard – is wearing his cap backwards.  There’s a small flurry of activity as two men arrive and set up a big flip-chart thing on an easel at the head of the table.  Then Steven Spielberg himself comes in and they all kind of sit-up a bit.

Steven:  OK guys, we’re about to start shooting so let’s just check that this script is ready to go.

He flips up the cover of the pad to reveal ‘Check List’ written at the top in black sharpie.

Steven:  We’ll just go through the list of script elements.  Sing out if you have the answer.  First: hunky hero?

Exec 1:  Yup, Chris Pratt.

Steven:  Great.  Spunky but quirky heroine?

Exec 2:  Bryce Dallas Howard: she’s ginger and she wears high heels while running through the jungle.

Steven:  Brilliant.  Evil corporate mo’fo?

Exec 3:  Vincent d’Onofrio.  He gets eaten by a Velociraptor

Steven:  Fantastic – great casting by the way!  Corrupted clever guy?

Exec 1:  We went with that Chinese-American geneticist from Jurassic Park 1.

Steven:  Wasn’t he a good guy then?

Exec 1:  He did some sympathetic eyebrow work in Act 1 but it was kind of undeveloped.

Steven:  OK, well let’s see how it goes.  What about annoying kids?

Exec 4:  Yup.

Steven:  How many?

Exec 4:  We went with two: both boys.

Steven:  Great, well that’s new.  Anyone I’ve missed?

Exec 5 (with hat on backwards):  Yeah, we got an Indian billionaire who seems to own the Park and flies a helicopter; and we got the annoying kids’ parents who may or may not be getting divorced.

Steven:  I like the sound of the billionaire, what does he do?

Exec 5:  He crashes the helicopter and dies in the middle of Act 2.

Steven:  That’s a shame.

Exec 5:  Yeah but it was hard to see where we’d take him.  We’ve left him there as ‘lead token ethnic’.

Steven:  So we got some other ethnic minorities?

Exec 5:  Yeah, Chris Pratt has a black assistant: he’s a good guy.

Steven:  Does he make it?

Exec 5:  No idea: we don’t see a lot of him after he’s made his point.

Steven:  OK, what about the annoying kids’ parents?  What’s the story?

Exec 6:  We kind of left that hanging.  The audience can kind of fill it in for themselves.

Steven:  OK.  How about new dinos?

Exec 7: We got two: a T-Rex/Velociraptor genetically-engineered hybrid – he’s a bad dinosaur, representing global capitalism and the military-industrial complex – and a great big aquatic one which eats the bad dino and represents the awesome power of mother nature.  It eats a Great White Shark too – it’s pretty cool.

Steven:  Love it!  So what’s the story?

Exec 1:  We wanted to turn the franchise around.  So we asked the question, what happens when the military industrial complex gets interested in astonishing possibilities offered by the science of genetics, and what would the sociological impacts be, at both the macro- and micro-levels?

Steven:  So what’s the answer?

Exec 1:  It turns out it’s the same as before.  The dinosaurs escape and eat a bunch of people while the hunky hero saves the annoying kids.

Steven:  Damn right!  Let’s roll.