A couple of weeks ago, as A-level students began their scramble for the last university places, I read a statistic that made me want to weep: last year, of 80,000 children who were eligible for free school meals (i.e. the very poorest kids in the country), only 45 got to Oxford or Cambridge (less than 0.06%).
I’ve read disheartening statistics before (e.g. that Oxbridge gets over half of its students from the privately educated 7% of the population or that the 70th brightest pupil at Westminster or Eton is as likely to get a place at Oxbridge as the very brightest pupil at a comprehensive) but this statistic in particular just made me want to weep.
I would like to meet those 45 kids and shake their hands and tell them how incredible they are. You see, I was one of the kids who got free school meals; who got vouchers to buy their uniform; who wore a hand-me-down coat for six years running. I never thought of myself as a child who grew up in poverty – I still don’t – but some of the markers indicate that I did. It doesn’t really matter either way because I had a family I loved (for the most part), and I had ambition and smarts.
I’ve banged on about those smarts before but I’ve also admitted my regret in not aiming higher. Say what you want about Oxbridge and its alumni, there’s no denying that few UK universities can compare when it comes to future prospects (I won’t go into more stats but some relevant ones can be found here - pdf).
I’m not one of those bleeding hearts that think every poor kid should get a university education. It’s not for everybody and, as Aditya Chakrabortty explains in this piece, it can actually turn out to be pretty useless. I DO, however, think that there were more than 45 kids in that 80,000 that could have/would have/should have gone to Oxbridge.
These kids are being failed – by teachers, parents and politicians. They’re being failed by the system. We need a way to help the ones with potential. I’ve always believed that intelligence is more to do with nature than nurture. Either way, I don’t think it’s difficult to identify those with the most potential.
Take my nieces and nephews for example. There are 16 of them and I can identify the brightest two very easily (sorry sisters, I’m not saying which ones). I would like to pick out these two and help develop their ability. I know what you’re thinking: it’s unfair on the others and as divisive as the current system. That may be somewhat true but it’s not the majority that I’m heartbroken over; it’s the ones that can really make it but never do. They don’t constitute anywhere near 80,000 I’m sure but, for fuck’s sake, there’s got to be more than 45.