A chance for curious minds to shine bright

Oxford interviewers are in pursuit of potential - not privilege, says Kevin Sharpe, who seized his opportunity to show himself off to advantage

December 4, 2008

The closing date for applications to Oxford and Cambridge has passed, and some of our brightest prospective students now await the summons to interview early in December.

Oxbridge interviews, often the subject of misreport and controversy, take place this year against the backdrop of a quarrel between Oxford's chancellor, Lord Patten, and the Universities Secretary, John Denham, over the fairness of the admissions procedures used by the ancient universities. Candidates from both state schools and independent schools - and their parents - will be especially fearful that they will be discriminated against: in the first case, by questions for which they are less well prepared than the privately educated; in the second, because pressure to admit more comprehensive-educated students will disadvantage them.

Let me start by demystifying the Oxbridge interview - or at least the Oxford interview, about which I can speak as one who for several years interviewed candidates for history; philosophy, politics and economics; and law. First, the purpose of the interview is to do exactly what is wanted by Denham and those who claim to favour a more level playing field. The interviews are not tests of knowledge, or even primarily of reading. They are intended to explore the potential of candidates, their capacity to make connections, to think broadly and freshly - to borrow the business cliche, to think "outside the box".

To be specific, when faced with a candidate who had expressed on his application (always remember what you say about yourself) a passion for photography, I asked whether photographs were better historical evidence than words. Similarly, I asked keen walkers what they had learnt about the past on any long walk. Within minutes one begins to see the candidates for whom thinking ends at the school desk and those who carry their thinking into their other activities - reading beyond the school curriculum, watching the news or films - into their lives. And for the candidate - perhaps especially those not from the more privileged schools and backgrounds - it can be an exhilarating discovery.

Let me be personal. At my own interview, the first question I was asked, as an amateur performer in Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, was what I had learnt from them about Victorian social and political morality. My first reaction, as a sixth-former who had studied Tudor and Stuart history, as my interviewer must surely have known, was that this was somewhat unfair. I replied - honestly - that I had not thought about the operettas that way. Kindly but persistently, he encouraged me to start reflecting there and then. As I pondered, I began to realise I had much to suggest - doubtless some of it from ignorance - but plenty, in fact. I could think afresh. As I did, the interviewer and I together entered a real discussion, which I vividly recall to this day.

I can already hear many readers - and probably Denham, too - muttering that this is the sort of confidence or bravado that privilege and private education bequeath, and that a working-class or state-school candidate would have been more likely to have collapsed with terror and not done themselves justice. Far from it. I was the son of a crane driver who attended a grammar school in Rochester, Kent. And when I got to Oxford, I met very many like me who had found our backgrounds a barrier neither to admission nor to high attainment once there. Indeed, some of us state-school graduates went on to become fellows and tutors - the very interviewers who are now supposed by class warriors to favour toffs over ordinary boys and girls in a modern form of trahison des clercs.

Clearly some things have changed - the big question is, what? It is too big and complex a question to attempt to answer here. For one, I am not sure how many fathers there are now like mine, who, though he had lacked opportunity, was intelligent and had nothing short of the highest aspirations for his son and daughter. I suspect there may be fewer nowadays outside the middle classes.

More important is the tragic change that has robbed children of the kind of state education I was indeed privileged to receive. At my school, under truly inspiring teachers, we were encouraged to think, to enjoy discussing ideas, to read outside the curriculum (we read Plato and Machiavelli and talked about them), to criticise and to learn to take criticism as an aid to better thought and not as an attack on one's person or rights. We were taught to endeavour to articulate arguments clearly and to write a lucid prose - as the best device of persuasion.

When I went to Oxford, I was climbing higher rungs on a ladder, not facing an insurmountable peak for the first time. School really was an intellectual training of the sort that is now all too rarely imparted even at universities - and, it appears, in too many state comprehensives, where aspirations are low from the top down and where securing a half hour of quiet seems to be regarded as an achievement in itself.

If John Denham doesn't know this, then he indeed needs educating. If he knows it, but attacks the top universities for ideological reasons, believing that even an intellectual elite is intrinsically socially unjust, his assertions need to be tested and vigorously contested.

In fact he could do with a searching tutorial - or perhaps an Oxbridge interview. I wonder how he would do.

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