Nature, Nurture and Oxbridge Entry.

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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.

What do you think?

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