Let’s stop trying to pretend Oxford is a meritocracy

State school students aren’t less intelligent, they’re more disadvantaged

“It’s very simple. This is a meritocracy. You are here because you are intelligent,” said a Professor at Trinity College, Oxford, on my first visit here. I patted myself on the back and felt reassured about my presence at a two-day event for academically high-achieving students.

At this conference, I was one of the only state school students in attendance – surrounded by Etonians, myself and my fellow schoolmate who had been chosen under Oxbridge’s favourite term “outreach”. But what does outreach mean? If this really is a meritocracy, outreach would mean engaging those who are less academically confident. But it doesn’t: Oxbridge outreach isn’t to the less intelligent, but to the less expensively educated.

To get to this point is much, much harder if you went to a state school

This suggests elite universities like ours know they have a problem. When you’re having to reach out to those from less economically privileged backgrounds, you’re not a meritocracy, but an undemocratic institution for the elite and their children.

At this conference, we discussed the various merits and disadvantages of the state/private divide. One girl’s solution to the infinitely worse facilities in the state sector was that her public school allowed the local comp to use their swimming pool once a week. I could have choked with laughter. Is that really what the trickle down effect looks like?

In retrospect, I can’t blame her. How was she to know that the difference between the state and private sector isn’t about swimming pools? It’s about buildings that aren’t falling apart, not running out of basic resources like paper halfway through the year, classes which are small and full of children raised in an environment which makes it easier for them to concentrate and learn.  Private schools are about fully stocked libraries, teachers who have the time and resources to teach their pupils so they actually learn, rather than just aiming to help them pass exams.  They’re about the networking provided for further education and beyond, and prestige on the CV. They’re about feeling comfortable in big, old rooms.

A friend of mine, a teacher, told me one of her colleagues taught at a (private) school where the students were given a dinner every year with alumni. This was to help them interact with adults and academics, to give them confidence in situations where they’re out of their depth. I’m sure it helped, particularly when it came to their Oxbridge interview. But when half your students are on free school meals and you’ve run out of money to get the toilets fixed, a socialising dinner isn’t really an option.

But I can’t blame that girl, the lending out her swimming pool girl, for not knowing this. Since entering Oxford, I’ve realised first-hand what it’s like to be trained to believe you deserves what you get. She’s been taught she has her privilege because her parents worked hard, I’ve been taught I have my privilege because I’m clever.

We all know that’s not true. Privilege is a cycle, a landscape that’s easy to map. You’re more likely to attend Oxbridge if you’re white, a man, middle/upper class, raised in an environment where academia was prioritised and if you went to private school. Yes, you’re also more likely to attend Oxbridge if you’ve attained high academic credentials, but let’s stop deluding ourselves and pretending that’s really why we’re here.