The Financial Times columnist and co-founder of Now Teach (Lady Margaret Hall, 1978) talks to Richard Lofthouse

Lucy Kellaway: Compared with the girls I met at Oxford, I felt like Johnny RottenWhat made you choose Oxford to study?

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.

You might also like


By Liz Croft (Cohen)

I also went to Camden - and LMH (1971). I, too, had dreadful A levels (except in English). Doesn't it say something about the place that they were prepared to take a punt on two flaky students? Even before "widening access" became a thing? I find it hard to reconcile Lucy's memories of LMH with my own. Most of the girls I met were from grammar schools. I don't remember anyone in twinsets and pearls. I became JCR President, a most unlikely choice for an "elitist" college.
I also went into teaching after a first career with British Airways. At the age of 55, I retrained as a teacher of English. The Academy at which I taught until last year, has also had its first offer from Oxford - to read English. I am enormously proud of the student and know how hard it is to achieve the academic levels expected, but also how difficult it is for students from non-academic backgrounds to start the journey early enough to give them a chance. By secondary school, it is almost too late. I am not convinced that Outreach officers fully understand the challenges these students face. They seem to focus on social awkwardness and strive to make Oxford "just like any other university", when it is the early identification and nurturing of academic potential which is key.
Congratulations to Lucy on starting Now,Teach. Too many teachers are going straight from University, through PGCSE, and straight back into school, with very little to offer students other than their own, often woefully narrow, knowledge of their own subject. Hopefully these experienced professionals will bring to teaching an understanding of what it takes to succeed academically and professionally and give all children the opportunities we enjoyed.

By Maggie

Can we PLEASE have much less of Lucy Kellaway? My experience, coming from a very poor background some years before Lucy, was completely different and bears testament to the best that Oxford did then and now can do for the disadvantaged. Her rants against her contemporaries, the tutors, the admissions system and so on are published because she has the right contacts to get published. Some of us just work quietly at the coal face, helping other disadvantaged students to thrive. Where is our voice?

By Hywel Coleman

What a refreshing interview. Ms Kellaway's views of Oxford are very similar to my own. I was at BNC from 1967-1970 and since then I have spent my career working in education in the developing world - a galaxy away from the elitism, privilege and arrogance of Oxford.

By David Greenslade

I was amused by Lucy's comment about girls in twin sets and pearls. A former professor told me how a famous lady chemist, wife of an infamous author, used to appear in the laboratory in a twin set! I also went out with an undergrad from LMH - just a few times - and she was one of the boarding school set, so that also brought a wry smile to my face and the comment about other universities ( Bristol ) brought one of my worries to the foreground. Having been a visiting professor at a mid ranking private American university, I know that there is nothing comparable to Oxbridge in the U.S.A. and many universities raise good funds by appeals and generous benefactions from alumni. I think Oxbridge gobbles up all the funds here.

By Matthew Perry

It's refreshing to read about someone else whose experience of Oxford was rather mixed with both good and bad parts. Often I read these kinds of articles and feel I totally wasted my time there (Apart from the actual education I received).

By Jonathan Craven

Hats off to OT for running this interview! Refreshing to read one that cuts a bit deeper than the typical alumni story, in a way we can relate to.

By Val Kennedy

Lucy Kellaway's BBC contributions annoyed me so much that I would want to turn off the radio whenever she came on. I found her insufferably opinionated and elitist - a real "know-it-all". She gave the impression that she, alone, in the world, had discovered all the secrets for successfully running a company. And oh - by the way, Lucy, - we do not ALL work in offices! It's good that she realizes how lucky she is, and that she is now "giving back"; but it's sad that she is, apparently, still despising the hand that fed her! (And, I'm sorry, Lucy, but, in my opinion, you do still have the elitism and the arrogance)