Lindsay Johns, a writer and broadcaster who is part of a youth mentoring scheme in Peckham, south-east London, spoke in a session on education at the conference in Manchester yesterday, where he was introduced by Michael Gove, the education secretary.
In a wide-ranging defence of “academic rigour”, Mr Johns attacked the use of street slang by young people as well as saying that when it came to school education “Hamlet doesn’t need a hip-hop sound track for young people to enjoy it”.
He said it was “viciously racist to think that black and brown kids in the inner cities will only ‘get Shakespeare’ if it’s set to a hip-hop beat”.
The University of Oxford graduate said his mentoring scheme runs visits for young people to his alma mater and the University of Cambridge, and suggested that understanding of “elocution” and “deportment” could help young people gain access to university.
Following a report by The Guardian earlier this year that white applicants were twice as likely to gain a place at Oxford as others, even if they had the same A-level grades, Mr Johns took aim at “bien-pensant liberals”.
“Can you please stop telling us how institutionally racist and innately prejudiced Oxford and Cambridge are. And in so doing, actually putting off ferociously bright black, brown and white working-class kids from applying,” he said, bringing applause from delegates.
He added: “Maybe, just maybe, if you didn’t keep on discouraging them from applying in the first place with your duplicitous horror stories of how terrible life is there then levels of representation would actually get better.”
Continuing his criticism of “bien-pensant liberals”, he said: “Personally, I find your rank hypocrisy both astounding and morally repugnant as you practically all went to Oxford yourselves and made sure you benefited from the wonderful education on offer there.
“Can’t you see that it’s precisely because you went to Oxbridge that you now have the platforms to say such things? So how dare you put off my bright kids from applying by saying they wouldn’t be welcome there.”