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Class war

BMJ 2000; 320 doi: (Published 10 June 2000) Cite this as: BMJ 2000;320:1612
  1. Jason O'Neale Roach
  1. BMJ

    “An absolute scandal” was the phrase Gordon Brown used to embroil the government in a class war with Oxford University (Times 26 May). With the emphatic backing of the Sun (26 May), which enjoyed “his blistering assault on stuck up Oxbridge 110%,” Mr Brown had ignited a much larger media debate on education, elitism, and class.

    Laura Spence, a sixth former at Monkseaton Community High School in North Tyneside, was “unhesitatingly spat out” by the Oxbridge admissions system, according to Peter Wilby, editor of the New Statesman, in his letter to the Guardian (28 May). The 17 year old's application to study medicine was rejected after an interview at Magdalen College, Oxford. She went on to secure a place at Harvard University in the United States.

    The debate intensified when the BBC gained exclusive access to the comments of Dr Ajit Lalvani, a member of the interview panel. His notes said that Laura lacked confidence “as with other comprehensive school pupils,” despite being “outstandingly intelligent” and destined to make an “excellent” doctor. Dr Lalvani defended his comments by saying that he was trying to ensure that the interview panel compensated for any disadvantage given to her by her state school background. Gordon Brown, however, saw it as “an old establishment interview system” failing state school children.

    The Times (27 May) was quick to put the facts into perspective. Despite Mr Brown's claims that Laura had the “best A level qualifications you can have,” she has yet to complete them. The 22 other applicants contesting the five places available had equally excellent GCSE grades. And of the five who were successful, three are women, three are from ethnic minorities, and two are from comprehensive schools.

    Dr Kelley, the head teacher at Monkseaton, said in the Times: “These [students] are people we cannot afford to lose.” But did Britain need to lose Laura? She had offers to study medicine at Newcastle, Nottingham, and Edinburgh but rejected these for a biochemistry degree at Harvard. To believe that Oxford is the only centre of excellence in Britain for medicine is simply misguided. Why was she so driven to attend an “ivy league” university? Julie Burchill, the contentious Guardian columnist, reminded us that “going to Oxford really doesn't matter any more, except to a certain sort of grasping, insecure middle-class mediocrity” (3 June). And by applying to universities that she had no intention of attending, Laura may have actually deprived others from getting medical school places.

    By this stage, the Labour party spin machine had created a populist campaign to appeal to working class voters. Mr Prescott told an audience at the University of Greenwich, that the government would introduce cash incentives for universities that increased their intake of state educated students. Ironically, I had suggested this idea in the student BMJ the previous week (22 May), just before the Laura Spence story broke.

    The Times reported that Robin Cook wanted more top jobs in the civil and diplomatic services to go to women, black people, Asians, and people from diverse social backgrounds. Then a report by the Sutton Trust, a philanthropic educational body, was leaked to the Observer (28 May). The report stated that students from the private sector filled 39% of places in all subjects at Britain's top 13 universities. If selection had been purely according to grades, the figure should have been 28%. Consequently, the Observer revealed government plans to offer easier entry for state school students into medical schools and to introduce Harvard-style “talent spotters” to tour state schools to identify and encourage promising students.


    Laura Spence, “spat out” by Oxford


    John Stein, professor of physiology at Magdalen College, Oxford, hit back at ministers. In a letter to the Telegraph (1 June), he wrote that the real scandal was their failure to support efforts, including his own, to help educationally disadvantaged pupils get into Oxbridge. He accused David Blunkett and former school standards minister Stephen Byers of showing “a polite interest” in his summer school programme for state school pupils, but not giving it any financial backing.

    The current Labour government abolished student grants and introduced tuition fees. Now it is considering substantial cuts to university funding, according to the Times Higher Educational Supplement (2 June). How ironic, therefore, that it is using the tale of Laura Spence to promote the need to widen access to education. The Daily Mail reported that a pupil from an independent school is 10 times more likely than a state school pupil to obtain three A grades in A level exams. This is what prevents more state school students getting into the best British universities. This scandal is the fault of the government, and not of the “elitist” universities.

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