Michaelmas Week 7: This time last year…

Something that my economics tutor said in a class today triggered me to write this post. At the end of the class he moaned about how he was off to read the applications of and then subsequently invite to interview, PPE UCAS applicants. This has triggered me to think back to the position I was in this time last year, when I was one of those very applicants that an exasperated tutor would be deciding whether to interview or not.

I was not a “sure” PPE applicant by any extent of the word. When I applied I had GCSE grades that were way below average for PPE, contextually they were good but most students at elite private schools would put them to shame. I had just got my AS Level results which had disheartened me (AABB) and made me doubt whether I should even apply to Oxford University at all. I worked hard at my personal statement and sent my application off in early October. Very soon afterwards I was given an offer from the University of Bath for International Development with Economics, this was my reserve choice and I was very pleased to have this under my belt. However then, virtually instantaneously after receiving this offer I was rejected by the University of Warwick for PPE. This made me doubt whether I should even consider sitting the Thinking Skills Assessment at all, or whether my entire application was hopeless and that I should just withdraw it and go to Bath. Despite this I did end up sitting the Thinking Skills Assessment in November, in all the mock tests I’d done I’d never got above 59 (which is just below average), let’s just say I did not believe I would be interviewed at all.

But somehow, for some reason, I was contacted in late November just over a week before interviews began to be told I had been invited to interview. In some respects before receiving the email I just wanted the stresses of UCAS to be over, and had already convinced myself that I would not be invited to interview, and that I would be able to put in my UCAS firm and reserve choices and be over with it after receiving the rejection. But this was not to be. Instead in less than 2 weeks I would be staying for 3 nights at an Oxford College, interacting with other applicants and being interviewed by academics. Once the initial shock and elation elapsed, I became petrified. I was worried that I was going to arrive, as a token state school student, and be laughed out of the room by both other PPE applicants and tutors. One of my biggest worries was my Philosophy interview, in preparing for my application I had read a few basic Philosophy books but in the scheme of things I knew nothing. I hurriedly arranged 4 practice interviews with a variety of connections I had, both from Access projects (such as Oxford Brookes University’s Engage program and the Sutton Trust US Programme) and teachers at my school. Topics of discussion at these included The Trolley Problem, my view on an extract from the Economist magazine, current affairs including the refugee crisis, my view on other work of Dambisa Moyo (other than what was stated in my Personal Statement) and a number of other things. All of which I managed to cope with okay…

So then on the Sunday before interviews I arrived at college, a place I had only ever been once before. Instantly it seemed more imposing than I remembered. I was shown to my room by a friendly student helper, who told me the times that I could collect food from the hall, and showed me a few of the intricacies that the college had. Then I was left alone… Alone in a strange college, with no body that I knew and the weight of (at least) two impending interviews on my shoulders. Almost instantaneously, after dropping my suitcase off I left and walked around Oxford. Oxford is a city that I’ve lived in my entire life but on that day I felt like I was seeing it from a completely different viewpoint. It seemed menacing and cold, rather than the lively and vibrant place I was used to. I knew a few people who were also being interviewed at other colleges and so mainly kept myself to myself on the first night and morning before our “subject briefing”. This subject briefing was a chance for all the students being interviewed for PPE to meet each other and see the tutors who would be carrying out interviews. All in all there were about 25 or so people being interviewed (for 7 places). I got talking with two interesting people while waiting beforehand, an Austrian and a Bulgarian, who are now two course mates of mine. The meeting itself was as competitive and unfriendly as its possible to get, everyone was clearly trying to make good impressions and suck up to the tutors and didn’t really care about the other applicants which was sad.

The macho and egoistic atmosphere continued surrounding a large number of the PPEists. I remember comically being told by one applicant how he was “going to get an offer for sure”, because on sitting the TSA last year he had got one of the highest scores in the university, and how although he had missed the offer last time, that was because “he didn’t try for exams”. He also anecdoted about how he had met one of his interviewers on a train and they had said “he was the best student interviewed that year”. How much of this was macho bullshit and how much of it was correct I don’t know. All I do know is that he is not on my course. In the scheme of things all the PPE candidates who I instinctively didn’t like and found pretentious or patronizing didn’t get an offer. At the time however, I felt surrounded by all these self important and seemingly perfect students who were all competing for very few spaces. To see the content of my interviews themselves check out the Interviews page. But to conclude interviews, I left feeling that I almost definitely wouldn’t get an offer and if I did I would be around all the self important, egotists.

So in January, after a Christmas where I completely put the thought of Oxford out of my mind I found out that I had been given an offer and had completely mixed feelings about it. For a number of weeks I considered going to an alternative university that I thought might be more inclusive and friendly but in the end I firmed Oxford.  Let me tell you this, Interviews are no where near comparable to the Oxford experience. I have ended up with a PPE cohort that is amazing, I didn’t know who half of them were at interview but now we’re close knit and supportive.

The aim of this is to reinforce a few things. Firstly, a lot of aspects of the Oxford application process are luck, the fact my application was read by a tutor willing to overlook my AS grades and accept a mediocre TSA score, is luck. The fact that at the actual interviews a number of topics came up that I’m especially interested in (for example The Trolley Problem) was luck. Secondly Oxford is not the be all and end all of universities, and there are so many negatives, think I’m going to devote a post to them at some point! Thirdly, don’t let the people you meet at interview make your decision for you, many of them won’t get in and if they do there will be plenty of people you’ve not even met yet who are amazing! Finally, UCAS applications are a roller coaster ride, don’t obsess over them, at the end of the day what will be will be and there’s only a limited amount you can do about that!!

An open letter on grammar schools

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve become increasingly worried about the government’s actions regarding grammar schools. I fundamentally feel that the education system in the UK needs to focus more heavily on choice rather than selection. It worries me progress made at achieving a more fair society will be put back decades by reintroducing grammars, as class based schooling begins again. Below is an open letter that I’ve written to Rt Hon Justine Greening MP (through my MP Rt Hon Andrew Smith).

I thoroughly recommend the Myth of Meritocracy by James Bloodworth, this is one of the books I’ve got on the go for my spare time reading!!


Dear Andrew,

I am writing to you about the current government’s actions with regards to the removal of the memorandum on grammar schools. Please would you pass my concerns onto the Rt Hon Justine Greening MP, the Secretary of State for Education.  I feel that this debate is especially relevant to the constituents of Oxford East, with it recently having been categorized as in the bottom decile of constituencies in the Social Mobility Index.

I would firstly like to clarify the Secretary of State’s justification for beginning to consider the old grammar school system. It is my worry that the actions that she is taking could very well inhibit social mobility further, rather than promoting it. As I am sure she is aware, a child in one of the 163 current selective grammar schools in the UK are  4-5 times more likely to have come from an independent prep school than from a disadvantaged background. Looking at the system in Kent where approximately 1/3rd of students are educated at grammars the disparity is exemplified with 6.3% of students in receipt of the pupil premium compared to 26.9% at Kent comprehensive schools. Students are also 9 times less likely to be in the care of Kent County Council. Are these not significant reasons why selection at age 11 is fundamentally flawed?

Implementing a grammar system in a county such as Oxfordshire would grossly inflate the current inequalities that exist. Firstly because of the disparity in primary level provision, 6 state primary schools in Oxfordshire currently see 100% of students achieve the Level 4 government base mark in their KS2 SATs while other schools see 48% of students achieving this. Bright and average students at the high flying, more affluent primaries may benefit from a grammar based education, but what about the students who are already being failed by the state, who may fail the 11 plus with little support. I understand that you plan to implement a quota based system for the allocation of some disadvantaged students, does the need for you to implement such a measure not go to show how doomed your planned meritocracy will be? You aim to eradicate “selection by house price” for secondary schools by implementing grammars, but do you not feel that you may simply make living near good primary schools more desirable and therefore more costly?   Furthermore, how are you planning on overcoming the significant bias that students with parents who can afford to tutor their children will benefit from? Attempts to do this in Buckinghamshire with a new exam that was “more resistant to tutoring” have completely failed, with inequalities increasing rather than decreasing.

I know that many of the arguments surrounding the benefits of grammar schools revolve around anecdotal tales of social mobility from the previous system. However do you not agree that post war in the UK right up to the 1990s saw a huge shift in workers from blue collar to white collar jobs, this led to a significant number of people moving from “working class” backgrounds into “middle class” professions. Thus social mobility in this era changed as a result of structural changes in our economy rather than as a result of grammar schools. Many government ministers, and Theresa May herself have recently been quoted by the press claiming that “comprehensive education sacrifices children’s potential” and that “grammar schools promote social mobility”, please would you refer me to what evidence these claims are based from?

Would a more effective system of education not be one based upon choice, rather than selection? Why does the government object to a system that would allow a much greater level of autonomy to students? Where students can select institutions which are “academic” and those that are “vocational”. One of the main arguments used in favour of a grammar based system is that grammar schools separate those who “want to learn” and those who disrupt lessons. Surely one reason who students disrupt lessons is that they’re not learning what they want to learn, with choice many of these students would attend schools that would focus on vocational qualifications. For example UTC Oxfordshire, is a school which takes students from year 10 onwards and focuses on technical skills including engineering, additionally the South Oxfordshire Food and Education Alliance takes students post GCSE and trains them in warehouse (and other) skills to ready them for employment. Surely if your aim is a true meritocracy then equality of opportunity is key, with selection at age 11 this is fundamentally not possible, but by providing students choices this aim is achieved.

May I lastly point out that this is such a drastic policy change that surely it requires the mandate of the general public? In the Conservative manifesto that you were elected with in 2015 there is no mention of this policy change on grammar schools, is it surely not up to the public to decide such a significant change to education in this country?  –

Warm regards,