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Hertford College’s 21 Grateful Proles.

June 19, 2016

My parents both had a difficult childhood. Both had “work or starve” jobs before their teens. My paternal grandfather was an unemployed Warrington steelworker who died leaving his wife with six children and no money. My father worked part time until he could leave school at fourteen. My mother was twelve when the German occupation began and the schools were shut. She lived through the Athens famine where  40,000 died from starvation.

Compared with them I was cosseted. Having little education, my parents were in awe of “education”. I was the only boy to pass the eleven plus at my primary school, itself an alienating experience, then I was placed in the top stream of Warrington’s boys’ grammar school. My school report states “position in form: 1”  (out of 30 boys) at each set of progress exams up to sixth form. My mother used to take my school report into work. After the first “position in form: 1”, I worried each time imagining my emotional reaction to the loss of face I might feel if I didn’t repeat the achievement. It didn’t happen. I had nine sets of exams, and was “position in form: 1” each time for five years. Education had for me become a matter of status and competition, rather than a pleasure in its own right, or even a means to an end. I felt alienated, and when Headmaster Jackson prevailed upon me to apply to Oxford, I wasn’t at all happy.

I can’t blame my mother though. Her education was curtailed in a way unusual for people living in England. She had difficulty using the western alphabet, and feared appearing illiterate. I think she needed to use whatever means she could to impress people and increase her self-confidence.

My parents therefore were emotionally invested in my success. When my finals results arrived with the letter that said “it’s a real pity things conspired to cause you to do much less well than you should” my father said it was “like a blow to the solar plexus”. Years later my father would tell me he how much he would give to see me settled down. A few years before she died, my mother told me “I thought you’d be an executive”. She never lost her Greek accent, and I can still hear the way she pronounced it. It was an observation, not an accusation, and not much was ever said, but it’s impossible not to conclude that I had disappointed her.

I have felt chronically ashamed that I achieved nothing like the very interesting careers described by the Hertford College former students in “50 years of the Tanner Revolution in Hertford and Oxford Admissions”, the brochure which is downloadable as a PDF from the Hertford College website. I’d love to have had one of those careers, and my parents would have been proud of me. I wonder how I would explain to my parents, if they were still alive, the contrast between the stories of the 21, and mine?

Firstly, I’d say this is not a representative sample of Hertford College’s former students, the 21 are perhaps one or two percent of those eligible. Eleven of the 21 are women. Hertford prioritised award holders and women when allocating its scarce accommodation, women being guaranteed college accommodation for their whole course, regardless of means. None of the women had to suffer the unpleasantness of being spat on by youths waiting at junctions when cycling back on their hired bike to their miserable lonely cramped uncomfortable privately rented back room, way out on Southmoor Road, or their miserable lonely noisy upstairs privately rented front room, way out on Marlborough Road. Having no award I had to find private accommodation for the two years before my finals. If I too had college accommodation I’m sure my experience of university would have been happier, and I believe I’d have a class of degree I could more reasonably have expected given my A-level grade “A”s.

Academic’s daughter Natasha Kaplinsky wrote in the document’s section on co-education: “I soon realised that the perceived poverty was Hertford’s true wealth”. What a strange remark! That’s all very well if you have connections and the college spends its limited resources on you. It’s the poverty and the disadvantageous distribution of limited resources together with the accidents and misfortunes I had that made Hertford for me such an unpleasant experience.

I wonder if any of the 21 had three “A”s at A-level like me (maths, physics, chemistry)? When I took A-levels, approximately eight percent of entries were awarded grade “A”. By the time David Cameron achieved his grade “A”s at Eton College, grade inflation took that proportion to approaching fifteen percent, a few years later, 25 percent. My friend who was awarded a History “open” scholarship at Hertford didn’t have three “A”s. I doubt I’d have felt quite so humiliated if there hadn’t been such a disparity between my school performance and my university finals result. My expectations, and those of people who knew me in Warrington, were higher.

Although I achieved three “A”s at A-level, and although neither of my parents was educated beyond age 14, I was awarded only a place at Hertford. The “open” scholarship was awarded to eventually the only other student, an Oxford University chemistry professor’s son. Did anybody care what a disadvantage that was? Other years had a larger intake of chemistry students, who could co-operate and provide mutual encouragement. I wasn’t particularly on the same wavelength as the professor’s privately educated son, but he lived with his father in Oxford, and not having an award I lived out of college, so there was little opportunity for collaboration.

Some of the experiences described by the 21 were actually similar to some of mine. There’s the female law student who said she had no idea she was a Tanner student. I didn’t know either, until recently. Hertford College and grammar school headmaster P.M. Jackson were deceitful I believe in not making clear to me this was a novel and unorthodox scheme. Knowing the scheme’s provisional status would have supported my idea to take a year out, and apply to universities on the strength of my A-level grades using more conventional approaches. Some other things I didn’t know when applying to Hertford – when Headmaster Jackson dropped the application form on my desk, I didn’t know Hertford was one of the more accommodation deficient colleges. I didn’t know Hertford was about to demolish the Holywell Street rooms, worsening the deficiency. I didn’t know that the Oxford University Accommodations service would blame the newly elected Labour government for a lack of affordable private accommodation. I didn’t know the chemistry tutor at Hertford took his first degree and his postgraduate degree in the same provincial city (Bristol) where he had been to private school, and was unlikely therefore to understand the needs and feelings of an over-achiever from a state school in Warrington, a long way from home.

Also in the “50 years …” document is a description by a physics student of how his school principal “almost physically forced me to apply” to Hertford. My school headmaster did have me physically locked in the library when I arrived two hours late for the maths paper. He didn’t bother to have me supervised. Every few minutes during the long lunch break, a face would appear, in the door’s glass panel, of a boy wondering why the library was locked. The remorse that I felt, when it all went wrong for me a few years later, because I hadn’t said “no”, is, I believe, the kind that suicides are made of. TSB Bank IT management spiked my career development a decade later, a senior manager saying,  “you had trouble at university didn’t you?”.

I had a 2 “E”s offer of a place at Manchester University, but if I had rejected Hertford, I’d probably have taken a year out and got work in Warrington for a year. I don’t remember hearing the phrase “gap year” until well after leaving university, but I doubt it needed be an option available only to middle class students indulging in foreign travel. I might well have applied to Cambridge, where many colleges provided accommodation, and some Cambridge colleges were already co-educational years before Hertford. I would at least have been better informed about the value of my A-level grade “A”s. Whatever I did in my year out, I’m sure things would have worked out very well for me. With chemistry at Oxford being a four year course, taking a year out need not have delayed me finding a graduate career. I had my ambition set on a career in academic science at the time, and a first or a good second at Manchester or elsewhere would have enabled that outcome, when an unclassified degree from Oxford didn’t.

Will Hutton says in the document that he has spent a large part of his career arguing for a fairer Britain. In what way was it fair that, in spite of having three A-level grade “A”s at a time when grade “A” was awarded far less frequently than now, and in spite of neither of my parents being educated beyond the age of 14, that I was the only chemistry student in my year who didn’t have a scholarship award, and coincidentally the only chemistry student who wasn’t an Oxford University chemistry professor’s son? In what way was it fair that I had to resort to Oxford’s private student accommodation market, when wealthy, privately educated students had conveniently located subsidised student accommodation in college?

“Hertford’s initiative challenged the status quo and was unpopular with vested interests, but eventually led to reform of the wider Oxford admissions process, whilst also greatly improving Hertford’s academic standing” states the “50 years …” document’s introduction. What the vested interests were, isn’t said. I doubt University opposition to Hertford’s scheme was as simple as stated. Hertford’s attitude seemed to be that it wanted to boost its Oxford college academic results league (Norrington Table) position, and it didn’t matter if some of the proletarian types underachieved or had a difficult time. I think the wider University would have had at least some concern for the welfare of its less well-connected students.

The Hertford College “Tanner” scheme I believe cheated me out of the career my A-level grade “A”s deserved, and cheated society and the taxpayer out of benefiting from the skills my grade “A”s represented. There is rarely a day in the past 40 years when I haven’t regretted accepting that place at Hertford College. I’d have had a career commensurate with my A-level grade “A”s, better relationships with family and friends, and I believe a happier life, if I had refused.

 

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