This loaded question only serves to perpetuate educational stereotypes at Oxford.
I’ve been at Oxford for around 18 months and in that time there’s been one thing which seems ingrained in Oxford culture and by which I never fail to be perturbed – that recurring question, “which school did you go to?” Whoever it’s asked by – student, tutor, senior staff – and for whatever reason, to me, it is always a loaded question. I don’t hear it as an easy conversation starter, nor as menial chat. It feels like a point of judgement, the ticking of a box. It’s asked because this is Oxford, and certain people work on the assumption that everyone went to one of a select number of elite schools. If I were a bolder, more confident person I’d answer the question, not with a garbled attempt at describing my school’s location or mumbling “you won’t have heard of it”, but with “Why?” Why does it matter? And why is it so difficult to recognise the impact of those six words?
The simple fact is that the admission statistics don’t match up with the perception of Oxford held in our schools and perpetuated by culture. Questions like “which school did you go to?” position state-educated students in an excluded group which is felt to be the minority when in fact they made up 55.7 percent of 2015’s intake – not an ideal figure, certainly, considering they constitute some 93 percent of the nation’s schoolchildren, but the highest in decades and an indicator of progress. The figure however would likely come as a surprise to someone outside of the University, someone whose image of Oxford is shaped by the media and literary representations of boys ‘sent up’ from their family estates after their public school years.
Certain people work on the assumption that everyone went to one of a select number of elite schools
Having grown up with minimal exposure to the truth of the University behind this stereotype, I held Oxford in my mind as a place populated entirely by the privately educated, out of reach to someone from a state school. I remember assuming that open days were by invitation only, that to aspire to study here was far-fetched and stupid. With hindsight, I can see how misguided I was, yet the very fact that a bright, passionate 15/16 year-old was deterred from applying due to a belief that such an aspiration was genuinely impossible is symptomatic of the nationwide issue of confidence in state schools.
Moving from a state comprehensive school to Oxford is moving from a place where being openly studious attracts negative attention to one where you constantly feel you’re not studious enough. At sixth form I requested that the large screen displaying our university applications and offers be switched off for fear of being ridiculed. Wanting to apply to Oxford was something I hid – how audacious of me, a student of an average school in a distinctly average area to think that I was deserving of a place at the best university in the country, if not the world. Had it not been for the gentle encouragement of a couple of truly brilliant teachers at my school, assuring me that my application wouldn’t be laughed at and brushed aside, I certainly wouldn’t be here. State school pupils, in my experience, don’t feel entitled to aim as high as their privately-educated counterparts are expected to. As a recent article for the Guardian puts it, Oxford’s class problem truly starts at school.
Wanting to apply to Oxford was something I hid
Hearing the dreaded “which school did you go to?” reduces me back into that unconfident 16 year-old, assuring herself that she wouldn’t (shouldn’t, couldn’t) apply to Oxford because she would stand out and be looked down upon. I understand the importance for the University of maintaining its prestige. Prestige, however, isn’t dependent upon elitism and the continued reassertion of social and educational hierarchy. Elitism at Oxford has had its day of being romanticised by the media, literature and the Giles Corens of this world. The statistics have moved on, and so must the University’s attitude towards its 55.7 percent.