The Unbearable Self-Pity of Britain's Rich and Privileged - Spectator Blogs

26 January 2013

Is there anything more pathetic, more risible than rich and privileged Britons whining that their cadre fails to receive a fair shake in the matter of admissions to this country’s most prestigious universities? Oh, sure, I suppose there must be but the smugness and evident sense of entitlement on display in these matters remains enraging.

Today, for example, Anthony Seldon, headmaster of Wellington College, complains that his pupils are suffering unreasonable discrimination. Worse still, apparently, a presumed “bias” against public school pupils is a “hatred that dare not speak its name”. As the Americans say, cry me a river.

The evidence for this notional bias is, needless to say, emaciated. Seldon argues:

Dr Seldon claimed there are 62 pupils at Wellington bright enough to get an Oxbridge interview this year, but said he only expects 20 offers of places to come in.

He said: “From our perspective it looks as if some public school students are being discriminated against at the final hurdle. It’s painful because we are seeing some excellent candidates who would go on to get firsts who are not getting offers, about 10 this year.”

“Was that different to when I was at Oxford 35 years ago? Yes. I don’t think anyone gave a toss back then where you came from, only that you were good enough to go.”

And, actually, that remains the case. Oxford, Cambridge and other elite universities are not actually in the business of admitting candidates they feel are too thick to survive at a rarified academic altitude.

But, look, if the (roughly) 10% of children educated privately gain (roughly) 35% of the places at Oxford or Cambridge only the most blinkered headmaster  – even if he is chiefly pandering to parental prejudice – can truly believe public school pupils receive a raw deal.

The long-standing truth is that Oxford, Cambridge and other leading universities could fill their places with qualified candidates at least twice over. There are always plenty of excellent candidates who miss out. That’s the way the university admissions process works.

Claim your gift

Indeed, remove from the equation the top 30% (say) of those who gain a place and there is very little difference in aptitude between the remaining 70% of new students each year and many of those who are not fortunate enough to be admitted. There are plenty of people – from all types of background – who are bright enough to go to Oxbridge but who do not get a place. Hard luck stories abound every year and it’s not unreasonable to suppose that even the pupils of Wellington College might be expected to endure their share of disappointment.

Perhaps I should declare an interest. I applied to Cambridge not once but twice and was rejected on each occasion (despite having the grades on the latter occasion). My own fault, I suspect, since I did not perform particularly brilliantly in the interviews. Them’s the breaks.

But I can also understand why exam results are an inadequate means of judging academic potential. And potential is what admissions tutors look for. That makes it not only reasonable but proper to consider other factors. And, yes, educational privilege should be one of those factors.

Because, otherwise, are we really pretending that, say, 80% of the brightest children in Britain are educated privately? That can’t possibly be the case. Will Oxbridge really “get worse” if slightly fewer pupils from public schools are admitted? This too seems highly improbable. On the contrary, the reverse seems likely.

That is, Oxford, Cambridge and other elite universities already receive applications from all the very best privately-educated pupils. There are no precious gems lying undiscovered in those fields. The same, quite evidently, cannot be said of large swathes of the state sector.

There, too many bright children are still put off from applying to top universities. There are many and complicated reasons for that (and not all of them, by any means, are the fault of the universities themselves) but it stands to reason there must be many kids in state-schools who are never told how good they can be or encouraged to pursue their abilities to the fullest extent. That is an appalling waste of talent. Many of those kids would do better at Oxbridge than an average candidate from a leading public school armed with impeccable paper-qualifications.

Expanding the field of plausible candidates – that is, moving beyond a simple academic resume – should actually, all things being equal, improve standards at Oxford and Cambridge.

One irony of this is that Anthony Seldon, I think, understands this. Wellington College already sponsors an academy in the state sector and plans to sponsor three more. Last year Seldon complained that too many independent schools had “lost their moral purpose”. As he put it: “They lead the world in exams, but they are like faith in Matthew Arnold’s poem Dover Beach, with their authority retreating in a ‘melancholy, long withdrawing roar’. “Leadership and courage are needed from public schools – two of their core virtues.”

Again, no-one can sensibly say it is too difficult for privately-schooled pupils to get to Oxford or Cambridge and there is something grim, even grotesque, about these squeals coming from parents prepared to spend £150,000 on their child’s education. They may think that entitles their offspring to a place at the Oxbridge college of their choice but it does not and neither should it. There are, in any cases, plenty of other fine universities for their sprogs to attend.


Give the perfect gift this Christmas. Buy a subscription for a friend for just £75 and you’ll receive a free gift too. Buy now.

Show comments
  • zakisbak

    Ah,I see.
    Some discrimination is ok.

  • niav

    It’s surprising to read such a hateful article in the Spectator. The author doesn’t even seem to understand the meaning of the word “privilege”. Sending your child to a private school is not a privilege but simply exercising your economic freedom. It’s bizarre and twisted to desire or suggest that such children should be discriminated against.

    Reminds me of the discrimination practiced against children of intellectuals, in socialist regimes. The stated reason was “unhealthy social origin”, because to socialist minds those kids were also “privileged” and thus deserved punishment.

    • Fergus Pickering

      I don’t think you understand this at all. It is not the job of Oxford University to be fair in their admissions. It is their job to admit the students they suppose to be the most able. That might mean admitting someone whose A levels or whatever were poorer but whose potential they judged to be superior.. Public schools are very good at making what looks like a silk purse from a sow’s ear, but whatever it looks like it is still a sow’s ear. Ernest Bevin, for example was a silk purse, and, oh I don’t know, Selwyn Lloyd.. Do you see what I mean?

    • FF42

      Anthony Seldon’s assertions aren’t supported by Oxford University’s own analysis:

      Oxford University seems rather embarrassed about the bias it’s giving public school entrants. For example it blames state school applicants for applying to the most oversubscribed courses.

      Assuming unschooled students are on average equally intelligent in the public or private sectors, public school gives you a six-fold boost in your chances of getting into Oxford University. Not bad, but an improved probability is not an absolute guarantee. As parents are paying all that money, in part, to get their children into places like Oxford, they feel aggrieved if said children are rejected. But that’s not Oxford and Cambridge Universities’ problem.

  • Nkaplan

    There is a certain degree of ambiguity in this post Alex. At some places you seem (sensibly) to be suggesting only that there is no evidence on which to base any belief that private school pupils are being discriminated against, thus making their moaning slightly nauseating. That is a perfectly reasonable point, although some may disagree with your assessment of the evidence (I know virtually nothing about it so don’t take a side either way).

    In other places however, you seem to be suggesting that it would be nauseating for parents/ headmasters etc to complain even if their children/ pupils were being actively discriminated against. If this is your position then it is clearly deplorable, for not only would it amount to supporting evident injustice, but further it would (grotesquely) condemn people for having the audacity to complain about being treated unjustly.

    One final thing, your last paragraph contains an obvious and slightly dishonest straw-man. You say “there is something grim, even grotesque, about these squeals coming from parents prepared to spend £150,000 on their child’s education. They may think that entitles their offspring to a place at the Oxbridge college of their choice but it does not and neither should it.”

    Of course this is not what anyone believes or thinks. What people do believe is that having had £150,000 (or whatever it is) spent on one’s education should not be held against applicants who should be assessed on their merits and not in accordance with prevailing political priorities of the day.

  • Eddie

    So the lefties of Muswell Hill play the system and send their kids to the one or two decent comps in London (Fortismere perhaps, or that place the Millibands went), and/or send their kids private then go to state colleges aged 16-18. Then they can say they were state educated.
    I used to be a private tutor and taught the kids and charges of prominent Labour politicals (and they owned houses worth a million); and I also taught at a top London state FE college where loads of privately educated and kids of famous parents went.
    That way they can stay stinking rich and privileged, yet pretend to be ‘ordinary’ and just state-educated like everyone else. It is, actually, fraud. So what’s new?
    The enforced egalitarianism of education, and the move away for intellectual elitism, has caused this mess: we should have kept selective grammar schools (like the one I went to) as they have in mainland European countries – the commies loved selection, after all.
    Yet here, we allowed politicans ape the US system with awful egalitarianism and the destruction of chances given to poor bright kids – esp those with parents not very well educated. Sad.
    The left and right have betrayed the bright kids who have the misfortune not to be born rich and well-connected. These reforms in the last 40 years or more have made up go backwards and reduced the chances of the poor getting well-educated. Moreover, the left wing enforced egalitarianism has further cemented the pirvilege of the rich and well-connected. Shame.

  • Noa

    “…There are, in any cases, plenty of other fine universities for their sprogs to attend…”

    But none that provide the same superb contacts lists for progressing a top level public or private sector career.

    It’s all about accessing the levers of power and wealth. The top private schools facilitate that. It’s how they stay in business.

    Parents will do anything they can to maintain their own dynastic grip on them, or prise them from the hands of those who hold now.

  • Fergus Pickering

    I was admitted to Merton College Oxford in 1964 on not particularly brilliant Scottish Highers – A,B,B,C,C. Undoubtedly many public schoolboys will have done better. I did it on an interview and because Oxford was biased in favour of people who did NOT come from public schools. This bis continued until the 1980s when, in search of fairness, A levels were given much more emphasis thn they had previously had. When I got to Merton I found that public schoolboys were generally better educated than I was but not, I thought, any more intelligent. In fact, in some cases, I thought them considerably less so. This is of course merely anecdotal but the good thing about anecdotal evidence is that it is based on personal experience. The head honcho at a public school will say what this one said, but I suggest he can be ignored..

    • Badly Done Emma

      Your highers were very good – the modern day equivalent of 5 A band one probably. My husband had a 6 week visiting fellowship at an Oxford college and we got to know the system reasonably well. The admisssions interviews are an excellent measure of the applicants intelligence, energy and ability to cope. For years now they’ve taken state educated children with average results who interview well, above fee paying pupils with good results who are obviously less able. Critics of the system need to remember that that the collgese want the brightest – it’s up to our education system to ensure the very brightest are equipped. No grammar schools in Scotland, not even when I was at school. I went from a wonderful village primary to a dreadful inner city school where glue sniffing and sectariansim were the main interests of the pupils. No one cared if homework was done. One day in exasperation our English teacher (he was trying to teach us, the top set, Julius Caeser while the boys held a farting contest) stormed out of the class and came back with a pile of Tin Tin books which he threw at us. We were 16, hence the fee paying penury I’ve chosen. No skiing holidays for us, hardly any holidays in fact and the roof is leaking etc.

      • Fergus Pickering

        I’m glad to hear my Highers were very good but a dozen boys in my year at school had better. There WERE grammar schools in Edinburgh in the 1960s. The Royal High School which I attended was not one. It had fees of £30 a year but a quarter of the intake each year had bursaries (that’s free places) and more free places were awarded later. I was a bursary boy. So was the late Robin Cook. You didn’t have to be poor to get a bursary, just clever. The Scots prized cleverness in those days. We despised the public schools like Fettes and Loretto, full of effete English boys (like Blair really) with posh accents.

        • Badly Done Emma

          There were but by the time I went to secondary (1974) they were all gone. I dreamt of Mallory Towers while getting chased home and beaten up…

          • Fergus Pickering

            I’m truly sorry to hear that. But I have always supposed that Scotland is on the slide. They wouldn’t have voted for the fat man else.

            • Badly Done Emma

              It’s not all bad, the weather, for example, hasn’t declined at all – still as cold and wet as ever…. Loved Liddle’s New Year predictions about Wee Eck extending suffrage to ornamental boxes of shortbread.

          • Grrr8

            Ah Mallory Towers, such lovely books …..

    • commenteer

      These days the thickos come from the state sector.

  • justejudexultionis

    If anybody is stupid enough to send their child to feepaying school then they really deserve what’s coming to them.

    • Badly Done Emma

      Not everyone who sends their kids to fee-paying schools wants places at Oxbridge. I was against fee paying schools until I grew up, had 3 children of secondary age and lived in area where the schools are dreadful. I had no possibility of moving or the time, energy or expertise to supplement their education at home. Good state schools do a great job for clever kids or those who struggle. We have two good state schools in our county both are over subscribed. Parents makes choices they hope are right for their children. We’re not wealthy or stupid and have received no help. It will take us a long time to recover financially – our choice.

      • Fergus Pickering

        And I respect it. My children went to a grammar school, not quite as good, in my opinion, as the school I went to, but OK. But you have to live in Kent to do as I did..

    • Fergus Pickering

      No it is not stupid. The education IS better. Of course it is. Do you suppose people get nothing for their money?. And state schools don’t help themselves by offering silly A levels. In the 1960s there were no silly A levels. I should say that my younger daughter did A level Art and got a first class degree in Art. In the 1960s she would not have gone tom a university at all but an Art College. It would hve been just as good but she would have been discriminated against later. She would have been paid less. By the way, I do not consider AS levels in Art and Music to be silly A levels. I mean… well I am sure you know what I mean.
      I should never have sent my children to a public school because in my opinion it segregates them and makes them snobbish. Or at least it tends to.

  • CaediteEos

    Previous discrimination in favour of privately educated students, whether real or perceived, has been wholeheartedly replaced by access programs, quotas and enormous pressure on universities to accept more poorer students. The balance has been tipped some way beyond neutral, so actually I don’t think it’s “pathetic” or “risible” at all for people at the sharp end of this so-called positive discrimination to express a dislike of it.

  • Basil

    The world needs to know: which Cambridge college, or colleges, rejected you?!

    • justejudexultionis

      Oxford College, Cambridge and Cambridge College, Oxford.

  • Grrr8

    There is something quite insidious about those who seek to preserve privilege that cannot be bought and is highly constrained in supply. Society needs to get over its Oxbridge obsession. There is more value to a person and more potential signalling indicators than an Oxbridge degree. A good place to start would be politics and the civil/ diplomatic service. More Alan Johnsons I say.

  • Daniel Olive

    I don’t know where the figure of 70% of places going to privately educated students comes from, the current figure for Cambridge is 37%. It is in no way ridiculous to suggest that 37% of those best academically prepared for oxbridge have been privately educated, especially given the proportion of state students who attend such poor and uninspiring schools there was never any chance of them attending any university.

    • grammarschoolman

      In which case, it clearly is ridiculous to suggest that the 63% from state schools are well enough prepared. Seldon is right – there are far too many unqualified people being admitted to Oxbridge for purely political reasons, while the genuinely talented are turned away.

      • Alex Massie

        “Best academically prepared” is not necessarily the same as “brightest”.

        • OldSlaughter

          Nope, but it is a measure we have and a fair one. You seek to instill the assumption that the better school means the lesser pupil of equal marks. Possibly true, but in seeking to socially engineer the system it will have horrible unintended c. as per usual.

          Instead of being ruthless about education and making public schools a waste of money, we take the easy way out. Affirmative action and all its distortions.

        • Fergus Pickering

          As I said. And it is just not true that this bias is new. Merton in 1964 admitted approximately 50% from state schools. At Exeter, Saint Peter’s and Saint Hilda’s, amog others. the proportion of state school boys was considerably higher. Of course there were bastions of privilege like Christchurch and Trinity. The finalexaminations did not show that the privilege was justified.

          • johnb78

            I’m entirely certain that the proportion of state school boys at St Hilda’s in 1964, or indeed any year prior to 2008, was 0%.

            • Fergus Pickering

              Quite right, fellah. I misspoke as Hilary Clinton would have said. Saint Hilda’s was prole and Lady Margaret Hall was posh and they were both full of girls. And boys in the cupboards of course.

        • Badly Done Emma

          Surely the best students will be both academically prepared and bright.. And anyway being academically talented isn’t the be all and end all, there are other qualities worth having surely. Some of the least enjoyable dinners I’ve had have been amongst academics engaging in the the old ‘I know more than you,’ ‘No, I know more than you’ game of tennis. Boring in the extreme. On the other hand dining in college, Gonville and Caiys, I somehow managed to get the converstion round to a favourite, Joyce’s ‘The Dead’……I was the least educated person for a radius of 50 miles but John Casey didn’t mind at all and I enjoyed a mini tutorial over dinner. What a joy!

          • Eddie

            Emma – I do so agree with that. Academics tend to see themselves as possessing both the intellectual and the moral high ground, like the nobility above, whilst we proles toil below (and so ironic as so many academics are socialists – well, they are the only ones who can afford to be and are utterly unaffected by a bad economy in the safe-as-houses overpaid high status positions).
            Most of all, academics are utter dullards (as well as laggards and idlers) – as are most people who have never taken a risk in their lives or had an original thought. They are part of a factory system, and I call them ‘thought operatives’. All riding the great gormless gravy train of academe, right into big-fat-golden-pension-land.

        • Eddie

          Alex – I do not like that term ‘the brightest’.
          For one, it ignores the massive grade inflation of recent years. Now over 70% of all graduates get a 2.1 or 1st (15%+get that) – from a large pool. Scroll back 20 years or more, and you find that even at Russell Group unis (like the one I went to), most got 2.2s, and 1sts were VERY rare. And that was when only 7% went to uni and 6% to polys.
          The term ‘the best graduates’ is also bandied about, especially with things like teacher recruitement: as if having an Oxbridge 1st will make you a better teacher! Utter piffle. Many such people are utterly clueless – though great if you want to know all about the the Poor Laws, PPE or 14th century crop rotation…
          Those with Oxbridge degrees are usually the most arrogant, thinking they are born to rule, and I have always avoided recruiting them – because of their sheer pride, and the fact they often get offers from elsewhere so are not really likely to stay in a modest freelance job for very long before letting me down.
          Though yes, it is unfair – because evrything always is unfair – the way some people have more privilege than others. Look at who works in the media (TV, journalism) and ask them how they got their break. Ditto for TV and film – so many in that field have private incomes and have attended expensive private film schools. Ditto for so many things. And all those interesting things on a CV (gap year, nepotistic work experience with mummy at the BBC) don’t come cheap either.
          At the end of the day, most educated people allowed into any top university would graduate just fine. But they have to decide somehow and make a cut-off point somewhere too. Same with anything. Same with deciding which books get reviewed in the Spectator, and everything else.

        • Daniel Olive

          No, which is why that’s what I said. For example, it was suggested (by Cambridge) that I might get in to oxbridge after extensive resits and further study. That is to say, with a better grounding. I would be no brighter after another year at my FE college, but I would be better academically prepared. It’s the same reason universities don’t take the best students at the 11+ or those with the best GCSEs straight away (that is, at 11 and 16), because those extra years give you things that prepare you for university. With lots of good tuition in Maths I might be academically prepared for the Physics course at the university I ended up going to, but as my AS Maths grade made clear I am not currently academically prepared to study Physics.

      • Laura McInerney

        Bear in mind that the 63% from state schools also includes grammar schools.

    • Laura McInerney

      Why is there never any chance of you attending university if you went to a poor and uninspiring school? I put it the other way: If you believe that the only reason you are smart is because your school poured excellent and inspiration learning into you, what makes you think you will flourish at Oxford when the emphasis is on independent learning and tutorials are more about sparring than being directly taught?

      It’s entirely plausible that someone who nevertheless achieves well in a poor and uninspiring school – and there are always some however bad the school is – may be far better placed to go.

      • Daniel Olive

        Some people are born in a situation in life where nothing can ever get them to university. I should have said that, rather than putting it entirely on the schools because a combination of great luck with family and intelligence could enable someone to be prepared for university however dire the school.

    • justejudexultionis

      Many state schools are ‘poor and uninspiring’ precisely because many middle class parents withdraw their children from the state system. The net effect of this middle class exodus is to lower standards within the state system as governments no longer have any interest in safeguarding standards in a sector from which their most cherished constituents have, almost completely, withdrawn. The Germans and Scandinavians have state school sectors that are superior to our own: they can get it right, why can’t we?

      • Eddie

        The Germans have grammar school, deary, as did the Russian communists, and as do most European countries who all kept the selective school system as we embracved the American comprehensive mess for socio-political (and in the US, racial) and NOT educational reasons.
        The ‘private schools take all the talent’ argument is in general a red herring. If we had selective grammar schools, then poor bright kids could excel – instead of suffering in mediocre mixed ability comprehensive sink schools. We in the UK have betrayed these kids and continue to do so.
        Personally, I was very lucky to grow up JUST outside greater London, and thuse benefit from good traditional primary education (not perfect, but OK) and a top grammar school. I shudder to think where I’d be in life if I’d been swallowed the stifling monster called ILEA.

  • Ron Todd

    Many people think that we should have more good schools, state and private to give more children a chance of reaching the standards required to get in to a top university. Do we also need a way of creating more world class universities, or expanding the ones we have so more of the children with the talent can get the best education possible?

    • Grrr8

      I doubt (though I’m no expert) that an Oxbridge education is any better than that provided by a Russell Group school. My sense is the problem is with branding/ signalling.

      • Badly Done Emma

        Well actually it is. Our pals’ state school son went to Oxford and the rigorous teaching, tutorials, essay writing and general opportunities were way in advance of what our (privately educated) daughters are getting at Russell group universities. He’s a very bright boy and deserved his first. Lots of privately educated children get results in advance of their academic capabilities and many flounder at university. This will only change when not every job advertised requires the applicant to be university educated and companies offer training instead.

        • Grrr8

          Funnily enough access to quality teaching etc is relatively easy to fix. The brand, reputation and network effects are much harder. If there is worse teaching in the Russell group, they need to fix it.

          (I also find yr comments interesting in as far as Simon Wren Lewis, a fellow at Merton College, says he spends all of 12 days a year teaching. Maybe he’s the exception.)

          You are somewhat correct in that a uni degree should not be the screen for most jobs (let’s exempt doctors!) The lead needs to come from the state and from political parties.

          • Little Black Censored

            Then teaching is evidently not his main task at the moment. So what does that tell us?

            • Grrr8

              Well – if he is typical then I’m surprised that the educational experience is viewed as superior to other universities.

  • OldSlaughter


    • justejudexultionis

      Couldn’t have said it worst myself.

      • Fergus Pickering

        Worse, my old darling, worse. Where DID you go to school?

        • Noa

          Oh Fergus, how hypocritical!

          And there’s you saying spelling doesn’t affect an argument.

          • Fergus Pickering

            That is not spelling, Noa. And what he said is not an argument. It’s a statement.

            • Noa

              “I don’t see why an inability to spell should undermine an argument.”

              Then no more should it undermine a statement. Consistency please.

              • Andy Smith

                whtr thgjkfgh fgkfjkgkfg flglfgk rgrg
                seemed to undermine that one fairly conclusively.

Can't find your Web ID? Click here