Some more thoughts on another Cameron moment during the election campaign (I know, I know – I’m a bit behind with events…I’m doing my best to catch up!).
I heard him talking about disadvantage and how it impacts on life chances. Good for him.
But I thought the example he gave was revealing. A very small proportion of school children on free school meals, he said, end up at Oxford or Cambridge (he did much better than me and managed to quote the exact percentage!).
This, we could agree, is a sad state of affairs. But it does smack of a certain elitism. What’s wrong with Bristol? Or Nottingham? Or Leeds? Or Liverpool? Or Edinburgh?
By Cameron’s reading, after chomping through years of free school meals, a child has failed if they end up reading Law at Durham.
You could say he was making a general point about life chances and using a handy statistic to illustrate his point. If so, then this suggests a very narrow way of looking at the world. The number ending up at Oxbridge, if that is the only end result considered a success, is meaningless on it’s own. Cameron should find some numbers that make his case more persuasively.
Or you could say there is still a Conservative prejudice against the newer universities that fall outside the traditional idea of excellence. This condemns much of the non-Oxbridge world to an eternal scrap for third place regardless of their academic merits.
The new Schools Minister, Nick Gibb, follows Cameron’s lead. He criticises the PGCE courses at unnamed ‘rubbish’ universities and says he’d rather have teachers without training, as long as they had a physics degree from Oxbridge (http://bit.ly/aDyHpp).
Nick Gibb’s words worry me. They unsettle the ground beneath any teacher who trained at a perfectly good institution, but not one called Oxford or Cambridge; they feed the idea that Oxbridge is the only place where excellence resides; they also show a disregard for teacher-training itself and imply teaching is an easy job to do without the need for hard-fought professional expertise.
Of course, getting the best graduates into teaching is a cracking idea, as is raising the standards of the universities. But we won’t get there when ‘the best’ is understood to mean only and exclusively Oxford or Cambridge.
P.S. Nick Gibb read Law at Durham. I wonder if he had free school meals?