THE BLOG

Oxbridge: Teachers Are Unambitious (Apparently)

23/04/2013 14:29 BST | Updated 21/06/2013 10:12 BST

Paul Murphy MP, last week, called Welsh teachers out on their lack of ambition in getting students from state schools into Oxbridge. His statements only serve to put the proverbial icing on the cake in a week when Michael Gove has essentially called teachers lazy. I wonder if government ministers, Conservative or otherwise, will ever run out of negative adjectives to use about teachers. Perhaps they could stagger their verbal assaults - at least then, I'd be able to deal with them in one blog post at a time. I am more than a little disappointed in a former Labour Secretary of State for Wales wading in on the teacher bashing.

Back to the point. The idea that teachers are responsible for poor numbers of state school Oxbridge applicants is fascinating. It is wearying to see this issue crop up time and time again. Numbers of state school students applying to Oxbridge first cropped up in 1852 when Royal Commissions for both Oxford and Cambridge showed that poorer students did not attend those venerable institutions. Why are we still having this same debate? And more to the point, why is it - 161 years after the first report on this issue - that we are now saying it is their teachers' lack of ambition that has prevented students from applying to Oxbridge?

My experience has shown that, if anything, Oxbridge entrance is given top billing in state schools. It is still seen as the gold standard of university admission and teachers who are sixth form tutors are more than willing to encourage students from all backgrounds to apply. With an increasing number of Oxbridge graduates working in schools, there is a renewed focus on raising aspirations, using people who have been through that system themselves.

Many moons ago, when I was a student, there was a real sense of expectation around students who achieved those elusive top grades at A-Level. If you didn't think it was for you, you were still pushed to place an application to Oxford or Cambridge, especially if, like me, you were more a minority ethnic background. I don't remember a single teacher ever telling me that I shouldn't apply or being particularly discouraging. I am conscious now, however, that my teachers saying I should apply for an Oxbridge place was not really about me as an individual, it was about state school statistics on Oxbridge entrance. I do feel quite cynical about it now. But it still does not mean that my teachers were unambitious.

I know that teachers are important to their students' perceptions of the world they live in, but I am more than aware, too, that my students are not passive receptacles of information given to them in school. I certainly wasn't, at that age. This is partly why I objected so violently to Boris Johnson's comments about teachers being the reason that so many students hate Margaret Thatcher - apparently, we have indoctrinated them with our anti-Thatcher views. Students are, more than ever, exposed to political and social comment. They have access to the news in many different formats; they are more likely to communicate with each other via The Student Room, on Twitter and on Facebook. They learn about the world they live in from many different sources. If there is a hesitation on our students' part to apply for those Oxbridge places, it may be because there is a collective awareness that it is hard to get in and that admission of state school students is lower than admission of students from independent schools.

If state school students are exposed constantly to the idea that Oxbridge is an elitist concept, then surely the barrier to be overleaped is that idea in itself. It is not a teacher's lack of ambition that prevents a student from applying to one of those universities, it is the students' own perceptions of them. It is certainly true that teachers I have worked with in the past eleven years have worked tirelessly to raise aspirations and to remind students that the perceived elitism is not a barrier to their ambitions.

As usual, teachers just need to keep powering through the criticism.

To change the record somewhat, it may be worth asking whether, in fact, there is too much focus on Oxbridge entrance. Times, they are a changing. They have certainly moved on from when Paul Murphy himself went from a Catholic school in Pontypool to Oriel College, Oxford. Now, the Russell Group of universities, made of 24 of the best higher education institutions, has a wealth of excellent teaching facilities. One look at the rankings of universities according to subject makes it clear that if one is to go the 'best' university, it may not be Oxbridge for a particular subject. While both Oxford and Cambridge rank highly, they do not always rank at the top of the list. It begs the question, then, whether the Paul Murphy's comments are based on a real desire to see students receive the most cutting-edge, the most developed and most effective teaching at this level, or whether he - like many others, believes that having Oxford or Cambridge on your CV gives you an immediate advantage over anyone else. If that is the case, he is just perpetuating an elitism that teachers have been trying to eliminate for years.

For many students, regardless of their socio-economic background, Oxbridge may not be the right environment for them to flourish. Of course, there is evidence that many do. However, it is interesting to note that one of key failings of the charter school movement in the US is around college drop-out rates. Charter schools laud their success in getting students from poor backgrounds into college, but are still trying to work out how to keep them there, particularly at Ivy League institutions. Where my own students have visited Oxbridge, some have indeed returned with the absolute belief that they do not want to go there. Why? Because they do not feel like they fit in. I realise that this idea will never change unless more state school students do apply and are admitted to Oxbridge - however, that perception of the institutions is not something that is created by teachers, it exists separately as a real barrier to students, particularly those from poorer backgrounds. We can be as ambitious as you like as teachers, but that doesn't change the fact that a rarefied environment may off-putting from students who believe, even in this day and age, that they don't belong there.

So, it is with a heavy heart that I note Paul Murphy's comments and that I raise a glass to my Welsh colleagues, who will be working with students to fill in UCAS applications to a wide range of universities, which may or may not include Oxbridge. Good luck all - keep your heads up.