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Roland Martin - Issue #37


Roland Martin

December 6 · Issue #37 · View online

Headmaster - City of London Freemen's school; Chief Officer - City of London; Chair - Society of Heads - '...write things worth reading, or do things worth the writing' Benjamin Franklin

Oxbridge or bust?

Having written last week about apprenticeships, I thought I’d turn my eye to what might be perceived as the other extreme - post-18 - applying to Oxford or Cambridge universities. 
Over my career, I’ve coached many and varied 17 year olds through the application process, from a published Etonian to a Stoke-on-Trent milkman’s daughter. As my own daughter turned twelve this weekend, I was reminded of how on the day she was born, when I was an energetic young English teacher, a certain hopeful turned up on our doorstep for his practice interview the day before leaving for the real thing at Teddy Hall, Oxford; to be fair, his housemaster had furnished him with a celebratory bottle of champagne having heard the baby had arrived, but the tight timing reminds me of how important this time of year is in a school’s sixth form calendar, and how busy students and staff are in the preparation. 
All three of those applicants were successful; of course many were, but there were plenty, also, who weren’t. Teachers are fond of declaring Oxbridge applications to be a lottery, and there is certainly any number of excellent students who slip through the nets, for better or worse. Some who fail to be offered a place first time around go on to reapply post-A Level, and make a fantastic success of their academic careers, all the more hopeful and hungry for learning. 
What I’m wondering today, is, why is it such a big deal these days? Why are two British universities still seen as the jewels in our academic crown? Aside from Oxbridge, Britain consistently has the world’s top Universities though these two rise to the top consistently… I guess age, longevity, is one reason. The quirky traditions, the funny names for all manner of things, the often achingly beautiful buildings crammed into a relatively small acreage, all add up to a most appealing place to wish to spend one’s early adulthood. For a generation of us, Brideshead did us/Oxford no favours. Even before Harry and Hogwarts popularised the likes of formal hall at Christ Church, and the idea of learning in a rarified environment, the mystique of these places had a pull. Nonetheless, perceived glamour aside, most 17 year olds want to push themselves to be what they are told is the best, to reach for the stars … even if they don’t actually want to study astronomy itself.
Here’s a series of articles and opinions found in a very basic search - Why Oxbridge? - some are from from swaggering students, some are from broadsheets with particular leanings, some are from summer school suppliers, which is not to say that by linking, I endorse their courses. First off, the academic angst around applying:
Why straight-As aren't good enough for Oxbridge - Telegraph
Some handy litmus test questions for a potential applicant to consider:
10 ways to tell if Oxbridge is right for you.
On other options:
Why Oxford and Cambridge might not be for you - Telegraph
Again, what/where else applicants should be considering:
Is Oxbridge really the best university education you can get in the UK? | Education | The Guardian
A rather smug, hopefully tongue in cheek, student viewpoint:
Don't kid yourself: If you're not at Oxbridge, you're wasting your time
The problems with the system and why the elite keeps getting more elite:
I went to Oxford. So why am I so angry about it? | Carole Cadwalladr | Opinion | The Guardian
I know full well that much hard work does go in to making Oxbridge accessible to all; I’ve come across enough admissions tutors and outreach officers to know that socio-economic diversity matters, even if independent school children - and, indeed, Surrey residents, judging by figures from 2013 - still have the edge, as far as percentages go. 
For my part, I did apply. I didn’t get in. I had the awkward experience quite recently of reading the feedback for the first time which Exeter College sent to my school. My spelling was under scrutiny (it’s more than probable that I’m dyslexic, just never diagnosed) - when they suggested ‘his spelling was quite extraordinary’, that wasn’t a compliment. Having said that, I was apparently ‘intelligent and sensitive’, though it took me till 2015 to learn that this is what they thought. In my current role, I always think that when recruiting, we have a responsibility to give honest, candid feedback; Colleges and Universities - and often employers - are increasingly less likely to give it for fear of reprisal. Not much that can be learnt from ‘nothing’, unless in the context of Lear
I did marry an Oxbridge graduate (yes, she went to both) who can spell pretty well, who thankfully has never been as self-congratulating as The Tab‘s writer, above. She realises how lucky she was to get in, but also appreciates that I probably had more time for fun and regular student life up at York. Our respective English courses were pretty similar, as it happens, York’s was modelled on Oxford’s, just more diverse. I do sometimes remind her that York’s English Department was ranked higher than Oxford’s in the early nineties but I don’t get anywhere with that, and rightly so.
And that is probably because I didn’t completely get over not getting in. I did feel that I had missed out on something. Hence I spent 13 years at Eton; that became my Oxbridge, similarly rarified, beautiful and quirky, similarly exacting and all-consuming, similarly surrounded by confident, articulate students and staff. 
So as confident, articulate Freemen’s students prepare for interviews over the next couple of weeks, we will be there to cheer them on, to support the unsuccessful as well as celebrate the successes. For those who don’t get in, I can certainly suggest with confidence that there is life beyond - though it is certainly worth giving it your all - because who wouldn’t want to study at Oxford or Cambridge?
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