On A-level results day it was inevitable really. Of the roughly 14,000 applicants not to have received a place at Oxford this year, one of them, Alastair Herron, has done astonishingly well in his A-levels, receiving 7 A* grades.
He’s done so well in fact, that something fishy must be going on. How could Oxford reject such a brilliant student, thundered BBC Radio Ulster’s Stephen Nolan. ‘On what planet do you turn someone down with seven A*s?’
Presumably a planet in which over 17,000 pupils, most of them brilliant, are competing for 3,500 undergraduate places.
What Nolan, not to mention John Prescott who is also on the case, fails to understand is that the potent combination of grade inflation and intense completion renders A-level performance among the least significant parts of the Oxford application process.
The predicted– not confirmed – grades that most students (exempting those who have already left school) apply to Oxford with represent only the first hurdle in the difficult and multi-faceted admissions process.
The truth is that GCSEs and A-levels, along with minor considerations like personal statements (I know of one Oxford tutor who professes never to read them) function only as filters to separate the well-qualified from the brilliantly-qualified. By far the most important stage are interviews, to which about a third of applicants are invited. It is virtually a given that those candidates will all obtain brilliant A-level results of the sort that Herron achieved on Thursday.
The interviews resemble the sort of 1-1 or 1-2 tutorials that constitute the main part of an Oxford undergraduate degree. Creative thinking, experimentation and improvisation – not skills that trivia-based A-level courses inculcate – are demanded.
Don’t feel too bad for Herron. He’s off to Stanford with a $64,000 scholarship.
It’s possible, given Herron’s success in applying to Ivy League universities, that Oxford got it wrong. Maybe the tutors at Merton, the college which Herron applied to for Chemistry, failed to recognize his talent. Or maybe he just had a bad day.
The problem with Prescott and Nolan’s rhetoric however, which is disturbingly evocative of Gordon Brown’s rabble-rousing outrage during the Laura Spence affair, is that it alleges a mass conspiracy on the part of Oxford against talented state school students – a mendacious and malicious myth that totally trashes the work that Oxford does to attract them.
There is no conspiracy. The bitter competition for Oxford places makes academic talent a relative concept, which is cruel, but not unfair. Oxford may occasionally fail to attract and choose the best and the brightest of young people, but to suggest it is wilfully excluding students who would, say, look out of place in Brideshead Revisted is pure tripe.Tags: A-Levels, Oxford, Schools, Universities, University admissions