Don’t Patronise Me

Rigging the exam system to help state school applicants entirely misses the point.

academic scholarship examination system examiners Exams government politicians private schools state comprehensive state schools The Guardian The Independent

Don’t you just love The Guardian? My grandparents get it delivered every day, and so reading it brings back childhood memories of left-wing socialism served up on a table of starched white tablecloths and marmalade spoons. Leaving aside the erratic morality of champagne socialists, let’s look to the real problem: class discrimination.

Did you know that private school kids are over-represented at universities? No? Gosh, comrade, you are not keeping up with the revolutionary news. These hotbeds of oppression are keeping out poor and deserving waifs.

‘But what is to be done?’ I hear you ask. Fear not, for there is an answer. We shall merely rig the examination system to help state school applicants. We propose that students who have studied at state schools will get their grades boosted when applying for entrance.

Cambridge University: based on merit and equality?

It doesn’t take a genius to see the problem with rigging the system: anyone who looks at magically rising GCSE exam results will know that the concept of an ‘objective’ exam quickly become irrelevant when the government intervene to make them easier. The entire point of doing an exam is to rank people against an objective standard, not to present a politically desirable outcome.

Equally, I imagine those lucky enough to go to private schools will be slightly ticked off. But I know that the people most upset about this are those people it is designed to help. I went to a state comprehensive until I was 16 (before getting an academic scholarship to a private school). I would loathe the idea that I was being admitted to university to meet a quota of state school students. I would want to know that I had got here on my merits, and could compete with everyone else as an equal. Comprehensive students don’t want to be patronised with special favors or quotas – we just want a better state education.

I am not arguing that universities should not help state school applicants to apply. Private school students have a wealth of cultural capital and (parental) aid with which to fully exploit the system. The access work that Cambridge and other universities do is an essential corrective to stop the cultural barriers to entrance becoming overwhelming and to balance the resources spent on the private school applicant. However, there is a crucial distinction between encouraging students to apply and artificially weighting their application.

Cambridge’s duty is to encourage all talented people to enter the competition, regardless of background. But this competition should be fair and equal: at the point of decision, admission should be based solely on talent.

If politicians and examiners are serious about improving access to elite universities, as they should be, the answer does not lie in fiddling with university entrance or creating artificial quotas. Instead, they should be brave and tackle the fundamental reasons for underperformance in schools.