Feeding the fat Russell locusts

June 16, 2000

In his discussion of admission procedures at Oxford University, Valentine Cunningham ("Prejudice, yes; at Oxford, no", THES, June 9) argues that "many state-school children and their families erroneously write Oxford offI Not for the likes of you or me".

His article draws attention to the politically sensitive issue of people's confidence in their abilities and their attitudes towards knowledge.

My research on Yemeni elite exiles in Britain and the United States shows that these attitudes are indeed crucial if children are to succeed in an unfamiliar education system. These people were born and bred in a tradition of learning. They do not speak English beyond formal greetings, but their Arabic is highly sophisticated and has contributed to their children's intellectual advancement.

It is often assumed that many second-generation immigrants do not do well in school because English is their second language. By contrast, the Yemeni children have had excellent results in school, occasionally outperforming their peers.

Their parents provide a strong motivational force by guiding them towards the pursuit of knowledge.

They have made it into Cambridge; this gives them pride, but it is also conceived to be their natural place.

What Cunningham's article reveals is that class or ethnic background is crucially linked to both disposable income and self-perception.

Whether these can be changed through state-imposed positive discrimination is another question.

Gabriele vom Bruck. London NW3

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