The Financial Times columnist and co-founder of Now Teach (Lady Margaret Hall, 1978) talks to Richard Lofthouse
Oxford chose me — I had terrible A-levels so I needed a university that had an entrance exam. I applied during a gap year. Oxford gave me a second chance, in effect; otherwise I’d have had to retake all my A-Levels. The reason for the poor A-levels was that I did no work. I was at Camden School for girls; I was naughty, and a bit disaffected, and it was a groovy grammar school but there was much more status attached to being cool than being swotty.
What were your impressions of Oxford at the time?
I had one year of LMH when it was women-only. I hated my first term at Oxford. I was an insufferable mixture of very superior and inferior at the same time. Compared to the boarding school girls I encountered at LMH, I felt like Johnny Rotten. The difference today is everyone is fairly cool. Everyone can buy H&M. In those days if you went to a boarding school you didn’t have access to Portobello Road market; these girls were Mary Janes in twin sets and pearls. It was bizarre. It was like, ‘Who are these people?’ But I was very insecure as well!
What kind of student were you?
I was very motivated after the A-level debacle. So I worked hard. I worked office hours. I’d go into the library, take a lunch break, but never ever worked evenings and weekends. I never had an essay crisis. I was very, very, very well organised. If Oxford works well then you educate yourself, which is exactly what I did.
What was your social life like?
Initially a lot worse than in London. We were cliquey, the Londoners. I had one best friend. Then I had an American boyfriend outside Oxford that diverted a lot of time. I did make friends at Oxford that I’ll have forever — amazing. Lucy Heller — now CEO at Ark Schools, with whom I am working, was an LMH friend.
Did you take part in any extra-curricular activities?
No. I did no sport and no journalism. I worked, I talked to my friends, and I went to the King’s Arms. None of us had much money. Actually I did set up a knitting class, now I remember it. I suppose that counts. I championed knitting!
What were your tutors like?
I had some very poor teaching and some very good teaching. It was old-Oxford. Some tutors didn’t even pretend to listen to your essay. Sometimes you would get something that was simply extraordinary. Margaret Paul, now dead, was a wonderfully thoughtful tutor and a delightful person. Peter Oppenheimer at Christ Church was bored by his undergraduates. He used to clean out his ear with his pen in a slightly disgusting way. Occasionally he would say something stimulating. We went to Amartya Sen and Ronald Dworkin’s lectures. They were the PPE gods of the time.
How has your PPE degree helped in your career?
Oxford has given me the most enormous leg up you could imagine. I have worked in elitist jobs all my career. I worked at JP Morgan when I left. That was a doddle, from Oxford. Then, at the FT, there was a massive preponderance of people from Oxbridge. Occasionally you met someone from Bristol, and imagined ‘Oh, you must have worked very hard.’ I also benefited professionally from being a woman. There were not that many of us from Oxford back then.
What have you taken from Oxford?
Most banally: confidence. But actually, I have taken a rage at the unfairness of it all. Life has been sooooo easy for me. This is partly why I have set up Now Teach. I went to a severely disadvantaged school today in Elephant and Castle. They have just had their first-ever Oxbridge acceptance. It made me want to weep with joy and with despair, at the unfairness of it. I didn’t really deserve to benefit like this. I’m trying to avoid the phrase ‘give something back’, but…
How do you think of Oxford now?
Despite or perhaps because of the enormous privilege I had, I felt very phobic about Oxford. It changed me but I have always felt very uneasy about it. I don’t like the claustrophobia and I don’t like being back there. It reminds me of the misery. I was actually miserable there. It’s so beautiful yet I loathe it. I think the access question is exactly the key to all this. I cannot abide contemporaries of mine, for whom [their children] ‘getting in’ to Oxford provokes total jubilation or total despair. This makes me feel physically sick. This is privilege and entitlement stuff and it makes me feel that I want to do something violent. I hate the elitism and the arrogance. I really despise this. I’m sure I had it, mind you — but not now.
Lucy Kellaway remains at the Financial Times until July. She is co-founder, with Katy Waldegrave, of Now Teach, and will train as a maths teacher from September.
Lucy Kellaway photographed by Richard Lofthouse.