In my College we are pleased to see that we are doing well against a specific set of metrics associated with social mobility at admissions. This hasn’t happened by accident, but is down to years of hard work and careful thought regarding our widening participation efforts. The recently published annual report of the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission identifies Churchill as the highest performing College in terms of state sector admissions across both Oxford and Cambridge. It is doubly pleasing to see this given that we had our best ever undergraduate performance in exams last summer. Nevertheless, our pleasure is tempered by many different factors and we do not necessarily agree with all the analysis presented.
I am not going to attempt a deconstruction of the report but highlight, yet again albeit in a different context from my previous areas of concern (here and here), the problems with metrics. I will get personal here. I can describe myself as a state school entrant to Oxbridge, a product of a single parent family and living in what was then a socially deprived area (although the London neighbourhood I was brought up in is anything but that now). If you had a set of tickboxes to check I would look like an ideal candidate for widening participation. The reality is, though, that ask a different set of questions and I would come across very differently: I was not, for instance, the first member of my family to go to University, although neither of my parents did. Indeed, there are two examples of women from my family who went to university around 100 years ago at a time when that was very rare indeed (and they came from different sides of the family too).
They happened both to be regular visitors to the household and maybe they contributed to my aspirations being raised, I’ve no idea. One – some distant cousin whose exact degree of relationship I could not tell you – had gone to Bedford College to read maths and was a maths teacher all her life. As she was deadly boring to a small child I’m not sure I was particularly inspired by her path. The other, my mother’s godmother (though a confirmed atheist) had gone to Oxford although I’m not sure she could have been described as having a subsequent career. She was certainly immensely intelligent. So, at first sight I look as if I would have counted as ‘widening participation’, although that language was not used in the 1970s to my knowledge, and it would have been decidedly misleading.
One can think of many similar examples to confound the metrics including the kid from a sink school who gets a scholarship to an independent school – they would not count in crude terms, whatever their personal background. And yet the solidly middle class child with impeccable educational parental background who switches to a state school for sixth form education could be counted as a state school admission. In the city of Cambridge we see this happening, because the sixth form colleges are so excellent and some parents believe it will help their children’s university admissions. This latter example strongly suggests the system is being gamed. But set a target and at least some people will game it. This is as true here as of the REF or as of hospital waiting times. Smart people can find ways around just about any target however well-intentioned.
One has to ask what would make a difference in widening participation.Cambridge colleges have been trying to improve things on this front for many years. Indeed we have seen considerable incremental gains on this score in the last decade. But what would have the greatest impact? I would say the first thing that would make a massive difference is to start early with interventions, although such interventions would not and could not be done by colleges. Educational disadvantaging starts essentially from birth. It has been well documented that by the time a child starts at primary school there can already be about a year’s difference in vocabulary between those from families where parents talk a lot to their kids using a rich vocabulary and reading them bedtime stories, and those where, for whatever reason these things do not happen regularly. The Sure Start programme attempts to redress some of this imbalance.
Encouraging children to be aspirational is another strand. If there is no family member who has been to university then there is no role model or indeed anyone to talk about the issues. IntoUniversity is a programme that attempts to fix this by providing information and access to volunteers who can talk and inspire the next generation to think beyond their family’s parameters. Such a programme will only work if backed up by teachers’ aspirations for the children they teach and by parental support to encourage their children to aim higher than they did (or were able to achieve due to circumstances) themselves. Such parental support may itself be culturally affected, with some communities and ethnicities having very different views from others. So, if one starts to consider the ethnicity of university admissions then there is a whole set of new confounding variables: the usual term BAME (black and minority ethnic) does not represent a monolithic group, but is often lumped together as such.
It isn’t helpful when the media talks about how difficult it is for children from non-traditional backgrounds to fit into an Oxbridge college, as they seem keen to do. One of my very early blogposts was in response to David Lammy weighing in to Oxbridge’s apparent failings on the admission of black students. I’m not saying we don’t have an issue here but crude complaints implying we are making life difficult or that we are inevitably biased are simply likely to deter the pool of BAME candidates we would really like to attract. Anybody facing racism is one person too many but nevertheless one such example is not sufficient to demonstrate it is widely prevalent. The same is true about peddling the ‘elite toff brat’ angle, as was recently pointed out here .
Colleges such as mine strive really hard to go out into schools and spread the word that if you have the talent you are welcome in Cambridge whatever your background, colour of skin etc. However, sometimes schools themselves don’t reinforce that message; sometimes they try to game the system by putting forward kids who they think come across well and so will do them credit at interview, although these may not be the most talented. And some children never get off the bottom rungs of the ladder because of the disadvantages they face from birth.
However hard colleges work there are many problems which are completely beyond their capacity to solve. It won’t stop some folk blaming us all the same. Nevertheless Churchill College will continue working as hard as it can to reach out to bright sixth formers, wherever they may be and whatever their antecedents.
If you’re interested in finding out more about what Churchill College has to offer, details of our open days in 2016 can be found here.