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.

Jeremy Corbyn Erotic Fan Fiction

Over on Twitter, the generally respectable @Bri174 has suggested that Jeremy Corbyn erotic fan fiction might actually be a thing.  It wasn’t a possibility that had occurred to me… until now.  After nearly twenty seconds hard thought, here’s an extract from ’50 Shades of Red’:

Jeremy took a small black notebook from an inner pocket and briefly riffled through the pages, searching for a number.  After a few moments he found what he was looking for.  He lifted the telephone receiver on his desk and punched in a number.  Then listened to the ring tone, his breath coming faster.

“Hello, who is this?”

“It’s Jeremy”

“Oh hi… sorry I didn’t pick up earlier, I’m in bed”

A wolfish grin flickered across the veteran activist’s lips and he ran his finger round the neckline of his Co-op Fairtrade natural wool and cotton vest.

“In bed?  What are you wearing?”

“Well Jeremy”, came the reply, “it’s soft and black…”

“Describe it”, he almost snarled.

“It just comes down to my hips…”

“Go on!”

“And it has ‘Solidarity with Palestine’ printed on the front.  I bought it from a stall at the Party Conference”

Jeremy felt a strange and intense heat growing within him.

“I want you to tell me’, he said in a commanding voice, “exactly what position you would like me to…”

His voice caught for a moment as his excitement grew but he recovered himself.

“Ah, you would like me to adopt on… the… ah…ah… the Syrian refugee crisis…”

He was nearly there now…

Etc etc etc…

The Glittering Prizes


I can’t imagine that David Cameron is particularly delighted that Michael Ashcroft and Isabel Oakeshott’s new and ‘unauthorised’ (I’ll say!) biography of him suggests that he might have indecently assaulted a dead pig’s head during a Piers Gaveston Society party at Oxford in the 1980s.  No Prime Minister wants to walk into the Commons for PMQs to a chorus of pig-grunts.

I suppose the big lesson in this – apart, obviously, from keeping your schlong away from the mouths of deceased livestock if you have any political ambitions at all – is that it is unwise to piss off vengeful billionaires who have donated millions to your political campaigns and have time on their hands.  I certainly try to avoid it.

Oddly enough, nobody has ever invited me to a ‘sex-with-dead-pigs’ party and I never heard of any happening at the university I did attend (York, as it happens: a nice place and a very good university, but lacking the cachet of Oxbridge).  I expect it was all taking place in secret.

The journalist and educationalist Toby Young tweeted a link today to a piece he wrote back in 2009 about Oxford’s Secret Societies which does seem to offer some insight into the rise of pig-fucking parties.  Young characterises the Oxford social ‘elite’ in his day (he was at Oxford at the same time I was at York, and overlapped with Cameron) as being  young, rich but essentially middle-class ‘wannabes’, aping the fantasy idea of the aristocracy and Oxford that had inspired Evelyn Waugh particularly, but also P G Wodehouse and others.

In 1981 Granada TV ran a hugely successful dramatisation of Waugh’s ‘Brideshead Revisited‘ and Harper’s and Queen published ‘The Official Sloane Ranger Handbook‘ in 1982.  These had a significant impact on some students of the time.  Public school was cool and, all of a sudden, a tranche of ex-public school types (and wannabes) at universities across the country swapped their disguise of skinny black jeans, ear-rings and Clash t-shirts, for tweed, corduroy and Barbour jackets.  I would mock them more if I hadn’t, to my shame, been mildly caught up in it too.

Students at British universities have always done stupid things like get drunk, take drugs and flash their nether regions at inappropriate times but in the 1980s, there was a period when it was cool to do so whilst dressed in white tie and implausibly claiming that your grandfather was an Earl.

Of course, whilst students like David Cameron were striving to appear to be languid but debauched aristocrats to their fellow undergraduates, they were actually working their arses off to get ahead.  In the job I currently do, I get to see raw ‘aptitude’ (i.e., IQ) scores for a range of young people, mostly undergraduates and recent graduates, and it’s noticeable that those for candidates who are, or who have been, at Oxbridge, aren’t significantly different from those who have attended less prestigious institutions.  A couple of years ago I was chatting with Tony Little, then Headmaster of Eton (one of my sons went there: aren’t I grand?) and he told me that Etonians were like swans: they appear to glide along effortlessly but under the surface they’re pedalling away like the clappers to succeed.

What I suspect this means is that the kids who get in to Oxbridge – and the other top universities – are those who discovered their work ethic in the early-to-mid teens and  acted on it.  This is certainly true now and was also the case in the 70s and 80s.  Back in 1982, I thought about applying to Oxford but an unusual – at the time – wave of reality washed over me when I thought about how much work I would have to do to convince any half decent college to take me, so I didn’t waste my time.

So what is the significance of the alleged pig’s-head molestation?  Zero, I think.  It will doubtless be acutely embarrassing for David Cameron, particularly if the alleged photograph does emerge, but it was something that happened when he was a pissed kid.  I have no doubt whatsoever that at the same time that the future Prime Minister was pretending to be a louche aristo, others at Oxford, from a similar background, were smoking dope in evil-smelling squats plotting the imminent downfall of the bourgeois hegemony, or drunkenly dressing in SS uniforms; whilst spending the rest of the week assiduously attending lectures and tutorials, writing essays and polishing their CVs for the graduate milk-round.

That’s just what some students do.

After I graduated, I went to Sandhurst to learn how to be an army officer.  One of the student officers in my company was an Oxford graduate who had been a member of ‘The Assassins’ as an undergrad.  He was one of the most startlingly dull and stodgy twerps one could imagine: more Rotary Club than Hellfire Club.  It had clearly been a big moment in his life but it had passed.  I don’t know what he does now – like me, he didn’t stay in the Regular Army – but accountancy or chartered surveying wouldn’t surprise me.  I wonder how many pigs he abused?

Edited to add:

It’s worth mentioning that I strongly doubt that the pig story is true.  As the ex-Political Editor of the ‘News of the World’ points out in a blog for the Spectator the provenance is incredibly weak. ‘An anonymous source knows a bloke who has a picture but we haven’t seen it…’ would get laughed out of any news conference outside of Exaro News.  No publisher I’ve ever worked with would have allowed me to put this in a book without some rock-solid corroboration.  I suspect that it’s there for three reasons:

  1.  David Cameron’s career would abruptly end if he was to go to court to force the authors, publisher etc to prove that he had had sex with a pig’s head.  So he can’t sue.
  2. Even if he did, Lord Ashcroft has deep enough pockets to fight the case to the bitter end.  He is richer than Cameron by several orders of magnitude.
  3. And, of course, Ashcroft is co-owner of the publishing house.

As it happens, I was an intelligence officer in Belize, where Ashcroft is based, in the early 1990s.  All sorts of stories used to circulate there about the supposedly nefarious ways in which he had made his money, none of which, so far as I could tell, had an iota of truth to them.  But chat with an ordinary Belizean and they would assure you that Ashcroft was the biggest gangster in the country. Unsubstantiated rumours are a very cheap and effective way of trashing someone’s reputation.

Nostradamus strikes again! Not.

So, it turns out my ability to predict the future is not quite at the Nostradamus level (see the post below the one).  Ooops!

Oddly enough I was described in my final report from the Advanced Command and Staff Course as a ‘controversialist’ primarily because I devoted some attention during the course to rubbishing the UK Ministry of Defence’s ‘Global Strategic Trends’ document which purported to identify what the world was likely to be like 40 years hence.  I really should have known better than to try to predict what Sepp Blatter might do over the next week or so..

I suspect what has happened is not dissimilar to the moment in ‘Downfall’ – much beloved by YouTube satirists – when Hitler realises that Felix Steiner’s tattered rag-bag of Waffen-SS units wasn’t coming to rescue him from the Soviet Army Groups besieging Berlin.  I’m not suggesting that Blatter will marry his mistress, poison his dog and shoot himself, but maybe he does finally realise that the game is up.

Why Sepp Blatter won’t resign.

I’ve read a lot of the British and some of the US coverage of the current FIFA imbroglio and while there’s no doubt that the whole organisation stinks like a week-old halibut, I’m not in a position to form an objective judgement on whether Sepp Blatter, the current FIFA President, is an evil mastermind or an innocent victim of wicked men.

But what I am absolutely sure of is that there is no real prospect of him resigning anytime soon.  Why would he?

Whether Blatter has done anything wrong or not, if he quits now he relinquishes any control he might have over the situation.  The miasma of corruption that is surrounding the upper reaches of FIFA is such that any successor elected now would have little choice but to throw Blatter to the wolves.  Whatever the eventual outcome is, Blatter can be reasonably sure that he would have to spend many more years defending himself and his conduct without any kind of organisational backup.  He’s 79 now; and I can’t imagine he wants to spend his remaining years and financial resources fighting off corruption allegations and everything else that goes with it.

On the other hand, and seeing how FIFA appears to conduct its activities, Blatter can be reasonably sure that there are a substantial number of delegates who don’t have much of a problem with how he is alleged to have run things and will continue to support his Presidency.  If he hangs on, he retains some ability to influence how the investigations are conducted and he continues to have the corporate weight – and financial muscle – of FIFA at his back.  And who knows?  Something may turn up to get him off the hook.

The historical parallels are with authoritarian dictators.  Men like Bashar al Assad and Robert Mugabe don’t necessarily cling on to power against all the odds because they want to, but because they’ve got nowhere else to go.  Once the powerbase has gone, they’re pretty much finished, however carefully they’ve tried to plan their exit from the scene.  Think of Mubarak in Egypt, Gadaffi in Libya, Ceausescu in Rumania; the list of dictators who have managed a quiet and peaceful retirement in recent years is pretty short.

Which is not to say that Sepp Blatter is anything like those men, but he’s in a similar position.  He’s unlikely to be able to walk away from FIFA now without any consequences, so why do it?

First World Problems: Dog Poo

A question of manners

A question of manners

Back in the day when I first had a dog of my own, things were different.  In those golden times, the world was a somewhat less health and safety conscious place and – somehow – dogs behaved better too.  When I took my Cairn Terrier Edward for walks back in the eighties, we would get to the stage where, perhaps with a discreet cough or slight twitch of his magnificently shaggy eyebrows, he would indicate that nature was calling and veer off into the gutter, often positioning himself directly over a sewage grating.  There he would let fly, safely out of the way of any inquisitive infant or trophy wife in hand-made Louboutins, and that would be that.  At some stage a street-sweeper would come along and clear any remaining debris and the world would continue to turn.

That’s all changed.  I don’t know what it is with dogs these days – maybe it’s too much X-Box or violent pornography on the internet – but neither of our current pair shows any inclination to drop its guts in any but the least convenient and hygienic location imaginable.  Think: outside a street cafe or kindergarten at best.

Which raises the important question: what does the modern, polite, city-dweller do with the poo?

The first answer is, obviously, that you pick it up.  No ‘walkies’ take place, in the Weale family at least, without the responsible adult carrying at least four ‘poo-bags’ (Sainsbury’s economy nappy sacks are the preferred brand) in order to clear away the debris, whether it has been deposited on the pavement, in the gutter or the park.  And, particularly if you ‘double-bag’, it’s no problem to make a pretty thorough job of it too.

But what do you do then?  Round us, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, have erected a network of bins where the carefully tied bags can be safely and hygienically deposited.  Kensington Gardens is pretty good about this too: they’ve installed some heavy, cast-iron poo-bins with hinged lids, which look ideally suited for holding toxic waste of all descriptions.

The First World Problem begins to arise when one inadvertently strays outside the poo-bin network.  A hawk-eyed person watcher in Kensington and Chelsea will often spy a well-heeled dog owner making their way through the streets with their beloved pet attached to one hand, a small plastic bag of dog shit clutched in the other and a slightly desperate look in their eyes as they cast about for a suitable receptacle.

Well I suppose that’s bearable. Dog owners soon learn to take the rough with the smooth. But it can occasionally be compounded.

The question is, and I’ve yet to see it addressed by any etiquette expert, is what do you do when you meet someone rich, famous and/or powerful whilst weighed down by a bag of dog turd?

This situation arose for me a couple of years ago.  I used to walk my daughter to our local primary school every morning and, more often than not, would take Griz, our Bull Terrier, for a run round Kensington Gardens afterwards.  On one particular occasion, Griz decided that it would be a good idea to take a somewhat extravagant dump en route to the school.  I duly cleared it up and we continued onwards but I knew that I had, in fact, passed the point of poo-bin no return and would not come across another until we reached the park.  Never mind, I thought, there would be no particular reason to delay once Dido was duly dropped off and I could continue as normal.

This turned out to be a false hope.  For some reason on this particular morning, as I made my way through the throng at the school gates, everyone seemed to want to talk to me.  The final straw came as I was just about to break free.  The local Vicar, Fr Gillean Craig, who is also Chairman of the School Governors, hailed me as I passed.  He was chatting to another parent and wanted to introduce me.  It turned out that the other parent was Michael Gove, then Secretary of State for Education.

There’s probably an art to juggling a Bull Terrier, a bag of said Bull Terrier’s shit, giving a polite handshake and making well-informed small-talk about the state of the education system (I was Chairman of Governors at another local primary school at the time) but if so, I haven’t mastered it.  And there’s no denying that, notwithstanding a carefully applied reef knot, the bag was somewhat pungent.  To be fair, Mr Gove seemed unfazed: I suppose you get taught that at politician school; but I was in a vortex of middle-class embarrassment.  It didn’t improve things to bump into Samantha Cameron – also a parent at the school and who I knew slightly from when she was a governor at ‘my’ school – after I’d extricated myself from Mr Gove and the Vicar.

So, all in all, a tricky question of modern manners: where does one politely put a dog turd in social situations?