Viewed as a Varsity match, Theresa May’s ascent to the top office is another thumping victory for Oxford.

Theresa May’s new cabinet is another victory for OxfordTheresa May, the new British Prime Minister, studied Geography at Oxford from 1974 

By Richard Lofthouse

Then Theresa Brasier, the future Prime Minister, read geography at St Hugh’s, matriculating in 1974. She is the 27th Oxonian Prime Minister, the last three being her predecessor David Cameron (Brasenose, 1988); Tony Blair (St John’s, 1972) and of course Margaret Thatcher (Somerville, 1943). She is also the second female Prime Minister.

Theresa May’s new cabinet is another victory for OxfordBy contrast, in the whole history of Prime Ministers going back to Spencer Compton (Trinity, 1690), Prime Minister in 1742-3, Cambridge have only managed 14. If this contest morphed into the boat race, Oxford would be ahead by several lengths and still pulling away.

If we look at May’s freshly picked Cabinet, Oxford remains dominant with 7 Oxonian ministers (including May) versus 4 Cantabrians. The Oxonians are: Philip Hammond (Univ, 1974, PPE); Boris Johnson (Balliol, 1983, Classics); Damian Green (Balliol, 1974, PPE); Jeremy Hunt (Magdalen, 1985, PPE); Liz Truss (Merton, 1993, PPE) and David Gauke (St Edmund Hall, 1990, Law). 

Much has already been said about the meritocratic nature of the talent represented in May’s Cabinet, dubbed by some ‘May’s state school Cabinet’. Of the seven Oxonian ministers now in government, five went to state school, the two exceptions being Boris Johnson (Eton) and Jeremy Hunt (Charterhouse). 

Two of those ministers have local connections to Oxford: Justice Minister Liz Truss was born there, while May partly grew up in nearby Wheatley, the village where her father was vicar. Of all the schools attended by the new ministers, May’s is the most interesting, because it was one of a handful of surviving grammar schools, Holton Park Girls (today a secondary school Academy).

Theresa May’s new cabinet is another victory for Oxford

Numerous Oxford alumni have cried: bring back the grammar schools. As a solution to feared ‘declining standards’ in British education over the years, this response has been thick in the pile of monthly letters received by the editor. As a reminder to the younger audience, a grammar school is a state-funded school but selective on the basis of academic merit. From 1944, when it began, you sat the dreaded 11 Plus exam, typically at the age of ten as you neared the end of primary school. If you passed, off you went to a grammar school and a great future. If you failed it, off you went to an uncertain future at a comprehensive school. The whole thing was considered barbaric by some, typically on the left of the political spectrum, and the 11 Plus system was largely dismantled in the 1960s and 70s. In fact the Prime Minister’s own grammar school ended its grammar status while she was a pupil there. Yet in a very British manner, 164 grammar schools remain and many have done well.’s-new-cabinet-another-oxford-varsity-victoryThe other notable Oxonian themes of May’s cabinet are the continuing dominance of Balliol College (Johnson and Green); but more so the dominance of PPE, or Politics, Philosophy and Economics, (Hammond, Green, Hunt and Truss). Often imitated but seldom equaled, this curio degree emerged at Balliol in the 1920s, its author and principal champion Alexander Lindsay (Master of Balliol, 1924-49). Six out of nine Oxonian Ministers in Cameron’s first Cabinet were also PPE-ists, so this subject is on a roll. The greatest disappointment is no historians, (although Home Secretary Amber Rudd read history at Edinburgh) and May’s own choice of geography will produce grins among those who saw it as a soft subject; however, her second class degree (at a time when the second class wasn’t sub-divided) puts her in good company – Thatcher, Heath and Blair all earned second-class degrees. As Oxford’s twentieth century politics expert Professor Sir Brian Harrison noted once, becoming Prime Minster “is about self-belief and thinking that you’re better than everyone else, not getting a first.”

As for the bigger question ‘why has Oxford done so well at politics?’, there are numerous answers rooted in history, the subject of a previous feature (, see back issues, Michaelmas 2010, p26: First Among Equals). One answer that the Prime Minister would approve of, is geography. Historically, there was a magic corridor at a time when the River Thames was the watery equivalent of the M40: it connected Eton to Christ Church. Equally important was the westward fling of royal patronage, which spread from St James’s Palace to Hampton Court to Windsor. Another answer is Oxford’s excelling (historically) in law and classics and history, and then in the 20thcentury in PPE. Finally, there was the controversial Debating Union, (AKA, ‘The Union’) – although it must be said that as many Oxford Prime Ministers had nothing to do with the Union as embraced it.

Images: Oxford University Images, Shutterstock, Home Office


By Iain Farrell

I have some reservations about Grammar Schools. I went to one myself and achieved some success becoming the youngest undergraduate at Oxford in 1968. Most of my teaching career was spent at a famous independent boarding school. I am now chair of Governors of the only local authority comprehensive school in a London Borough in which all other secondary schools have converted to academy status. Despite this our school can claim to be the best comprehensive in England (13 Good School Guide awards for best performance in core GCSE subjects in the past two years). Our school admits all pupils who live in the community unless they have severe learning difficulties in which case there is special local authority provision for them. If a Grammar School were to be created in our Borough it would draw off many of the Able, Gifted and Talented pupils in the upper quartile of ability who currently provide both challenge and support for their peers as a consequence of which our school has enabled pupils from socially deprived backgrounds to achieve phenomenal personal progress.

By Adrian Bath

In view of the disastrous political misjudgement of the previous Oxford alumni prime minister and the resulting economic turmoil and breakdown of international relations, perhaps Mr Lofthouse should be rather more circumspect in crowing about Oxford's preeminence in the political class.

By E

Your article mentions that those who did not pass the 11+ went to a comprehensive school. In fact, these were introduced later, and 'rolled out' in the 1970s.
The system proposed in the 1944 Education Act in fact provided for three types of state secondary education: grammar school, technical school and 'secondary modern'.
The technical school provided the subjects that the name suggests, as well as general education, and catered both for pupils whose abilities lay in that area and for the middle of the 'bell jar' in the graph of general ability. These were not sufficiently widely introduced (Kent had them), and were summarily abolished in the comprehensive reform.
The secondary modern was visionary according to the 1944 Act, but arguably too often did not live up to the vision, hence the disappointing prospects for the large percentage who did not pass the 11+, and found themselves in schools that did not satisfy. This surely provided fuel for the comprehensive reform.
There was some (usually very little) mobility between types of secondary school as a pupil's educational needs and abilities developed, but nowhere near as much mobility as in the German system, for example.

By Sword of Truth

If you failed the 11 plus you usually went to a secondary modern, not a comprehensive, as there were very few comprehensives until the abolition of the 11 plus.

By Timothy Ziman

Maybe rather than congratulating ourselves, we should ask what went wrong in their education to produce such a disastrous pair as Cameron and Johnson?

By Martin Cooper (1966)

Please check your facts: in the years between 1944 and around 1970, if you didn't "pass" the 11+ to go to a grammar school, you did not go to a comprehensive school, but to a secondary modern school. A comprehensive school by definition takes all abilities. Having spent a teaching career in comprehensive schools, offering a much better education than I received at a grammar school, I would hate to see grammar schools brought back. Not all Oxford alumni are dinosaurs.

By Emlyn Stephenson

Yes, the '11 Plus' really was gruelling...and often heart-breaking. After the event, those of us who were lucky enough the pass found it hard to keep in social contact with those who were less successful. But pedantry demands that I correct one point in your article: 'If you failed it, off you went to an uncertain future at a comprehensive school.' Actually, those schools were called 'Secondary Moderns' my day at least.

By Alan James

If you 'failed' the 11+, you went to a Secondary Modern School (in a few places, there were also Technical Schools, but the intended tripartite system never really got going). The term 'Comprehensive' was introduced for non-selective secondary schools. A very few existed prior to the Labour Government's Education Act of 1965, but Comprehensive Schools only became the norm after that.

By Bob Allaway

Richard Lofthouse does not have his facts correct on the selective system. If you failed the 11 plus, you did not go to a comprehensive school, you went to a Secondary Modern school, and were effectively thrown on the academic scrapheep. I managed to escape this fate, although I was in the B stream at Junior School, who were expected to go to the Scondary Modern (apart from the few who scraped into the Technical School). However, my teacher realised I had 'Special Needs' and fought for me to take the 11-plus under special conditions, so I (alone) got to the Grammar. How many children over the years failed to realise their potential under this system, because they lacked the teacher and parents to fight for them as mine did?

By John Littler

As a Balliol Chemist I welcome the Oxford and Balliol political influence in the new government, but remain concerned at the disproportionately low numbers of politicians with experience of the sciences, engineering, IT or medicine. Yet the problems facing us, and decisions to be made, in those areas are likely to be far more important than the Brexit negotiations. When one selects trustees for a charitable body or trust, one is exhorted to select people who have skills appropriate to the successful achievement of the trust's objectives. Should we not apply the same principle to those to whom we entrust our country?

By Gerry Boyle

As grammar schools are a live political subject, I do think that you should try and be accurate. For most of the life of grammar schools since 1944, failing the 11-plus meant that one went to a Secondary Modern school NOT a Comprehensive School. At a Secondary Modern school one would not have the opportunity to take the same subjects to the same level as a child at Grammar School. In other words one's life chances were severely constrained by a formal exam taken at age 10 or 11. Unsurprisingly, many people saw this as grossly unfair and very probably extremely economically stupid in a world where increased skills were required across the workforce. Hence grammar schools, secondary moderns and the comparatively rare technical schools, were largely superseded by comprehensives.

By David Kingston

The remarks about grammar schools are very inaccurate. Most existed well before the 1944 Butler Education Act. My own grammar school (Hendon County) was one of a string established by Middlesex County Council before the First World War. Your chances of getting in to a grammar school depended on where in the country you lived - from 10% to 30% if you were lucky. One of the biggest changes made by the 1944 Act was to split 'all-in' schools, where you went from starting school to leaving, into primary and secondary, the latter becoming known as 'secondary modern'. As it happens in September 1945 I went to the primary section of a school that had just been split, although both schools remained on the same site. The 1944 Act was supposed to be tripartite with new technical schools being the third leg of the system but very few were established. By the early fifties the educational establishment had decided that the new secondary system was failing even though the first children to start it had not even completed their education. The move towards very large comprehensives started which eventually led to the disappearance of the majority of grammar schools. As someone who benefited greatly from a grammar school education (which led to my reading PPE at Balliol) along with many others from a relatively poor background I have always believed that the destruction of the grammar schools was one of the worst decisions made in Britain in the post war period.

By Elaine Wake (Ki...

Your educational history is not entirely accurate: those of us who took the Eleven Plus in 1955 knew that if we didn't get into Grammar School we were likely to end up in a Secondary Modern. Comprehensive schools, which aimed to unite the two aspects of secondary education, came in later.

By Aleksandra Markovic

I fear I don't share elation about another Oxonian PM and cabinet - quite the opposite: I feel ashamed that such a famous university produced so many unfeeling, self-serving and clueless politicians, who have risked this country's and all our's future. I keep on asking myself who were their tutors and what were they taught during their time at Oxford.

By Robert McGreevy

I am ashamed to be an alumnus of a university which considers this to be some sort of inter-university game. If you want to give birth to a UK version of Donald Trump, keep on playing your games.

By Christopher Wintle

I'm as much concerned with what the Oxonian PMs didn't learn at Oxford as with what they did. I timidly suggest that the following aphorism be added to the PPE (or whatever) syllabus in light of the recent EU debacle: 'Always hope for the best but plan for the worst'. There is a word, too called 'hubris' ...

By RH Findlay

Thatcher, Blair, Cameron, Johnson, May; not much of a recommendation for an Oxford education. Perhaps Oxford did things better in the early 1900s when it produced Sir Clement Atlee and one or two others who had a social conscience?.

By Richard Lawrenc...

I appreciate that this is a light-hearted article, focused on the longstanding, friendly rivalry between Oxford and Cambridge. That’s fine, but it is sad that it includes at least two examples of the unthinking elitism that both universities so frequently claim they are trying to overcome.
First, we are told that “of the seven Oxonian ministers now in government, five went to state school, the two exceptions being Boris Johnson (Eton) and Jeremy Hunt (Charterhouse)”. Good, but what a pity the state schools are not listed, and only the two public schools are named. Another missed opportunity to give credit to schools in the state system, and another puff for private schools.
Secondly, and more seriously, as other commenters have pointed out, the brief explanation of the 11+ exam and the former secondary school system completely misses the fundamental point. It is not true that if you failed the exam and thus did not go to grammar school “off you went to an uncertain future at a comprehensive school”. You went to a secondary modern school, which was not comprehensive at all, and generally had much lower aspirations for its pupils. The brighter, or better prepared, or better supported pupils who passed the 11+ exam went to grammar schools, depriving the secondary moderns of the natural leaders and role models who are so important during the teenage years. Not only that, but the secondary moderns did not normally have sixth forms, so their pupils were very unlikely to go to university; they were less well resourced, had less qualified staff, and their syllabus assumed that their pupils would leave at 16 to work in the lower levels of the economy. Comprehensive schools taking all the pupils together were introduced precisely to address this potent source of lifelong inequality.
56 years after I passed the 11+ I still remember very well indeed the tears of some of my ten year old friends when they learned that they had failed the exam, and the despair of their parents who knew that their boys would now have to go to a secondary modern, to receive a second rate education suiting them to become low grade factory or office workers. I was simply told not to worry; I would make new, cleverer friends. (I did, but in my view many of them were no cleverer.)

By David Martin

We so often hear the cry: 'Bring back the grammar schools!' How often do we hear the cry: 'Bring back the secondary moderns!'? There's a reason for that...

By Dr Dick Morris

Can I add my voice to those who feel no joy at Oxford's "triumph" in the latest Cabinet. From the records of those appointed, it appears that Oxford must have encouraged, or at least did nothing to discourage, a culture of self-serving, unfeeling adherence to the worst excesses of neoliberalism. When added to the covert, often overt, xenophobia and racism of the Leave campaign, it hardly shows the University in a flattering light.

By Christopher Coombe

As a long-standing supporter of the University’s initiatives to widen access to its top quality education, I worry that this article does Oxford a great disservice. Commentators mention its inaccuracy, triumphalism and insidious divisiveness. The key question should be to which part of their education, not social or cultural background, would the politicians, their biographers and historians, attribute their successes, and dare one mention it, failures? The article supports the view that the notable effect of such an education is to reinforce the student’s capacity to “think you are better than the rest”. No doubt intended as a joke, the article is published by the University. Is that its view too?

By John Hawkes

'As Oxford’s twentieth century politics expert Professor Sir Brian Harrison noted once, becoming Prime Minster “is about self-belief and thinking that you’re better than everyone else, not getting a first.” '

Well certainly such smug self-regard can be seen in the country's previous three Oxford educated PMs (and perhaps to its overall detriment, at times in the public image of the University as a whole).

Thatcher tore up an economic consensus and ushered in an "anything goes culture" (T May, BA Oxon) that has culminated in the BHS scandal.

Blair thought everyone else wrong and himself right in believing he could bomb his way to a peaceful Middle East.

Cameron thought himself so smart that he bet the country's future to win a petty political and personal advantage within the Conservative Party.

And what of the question ‘why has Oxford done so well at politics?’

What does this statement mean ?

Producing, at least in recent times, a disproportionately large number of MPs or that these politicians have been a particular success ? (See above !)

Whatever the case it is possible that the response given in the article, rather than contain answers instead simply perpetuates the myths with which Oxford surrounds itself, often causing a display of rather unfortunate self-serving arrogance.

These answers/myths may explain how Oxford graduates propel themselves into political office but they are also the causes of the inevitable failure of many of them when they become imbibed with a greater sense of superiority and self-importance than their true ability justifies.

Take the Referendum campaign.

Cameron's lauded 'First in PPE' is now shown to have little worth in enhancing judgement when he faced 'real life' political decisions that pitted the nation's interest against his own.

Next, Johnson is not 'highly educated' just because he read classics at Oxford and can easily inject Latin quotations into a speech or conversation to give the illusion of intellectual superiority in order to cover deception and to evade giving direct answers to serious questions.

And finally the self-regarding, 'renowned' Oxford Union may provide superficial training for a Parliamentary career, but does not enhance any talents necessary for the running of the country.

Gove and Johnson prove that holding office in this institution simply encourages a glib tongue, a pompous self-importance and a propensity for the same childish behavior and ambition in national politics as was shown earlier in Frewin Court.

This article moves on to suggest we have now a 'state school cabinet' where presumably the privately educated have been pushed aside.

And some are said to think that more grammar schools would reinforce this trend and reverse a decline in educational standards.

I don't think so !

By the nature of today's parenting and attitudes to schooling, many would see access to more Grammar schools simply as a way of obtaining an exclusive education and advantage for their children without having to pay £30,000 a year.

The un-coached and less supported would be as unlikely to pass a competitive '11+' hurdle as they would the Common Entrance Exam.

Also who says the state comprehensive system is failing overall ?

I am sure it contains many, probably a whole year's Oxford entrance quota of well qualified, intelligent aspiring children.

In my view the reason they don't apply is that they believe they would feel out of place in an Oxford where money can still effectively buy an admission for more than half of its undergraduates and where the consequent atmosphere of the place, as portrayed even in this article, is socially alien and elitist.

I have a modest proposal to address this.

Why doesn't one Oxford college decide it will only take 7% of its intake from fee charging schools and also make a pledge to state schools that if they can put forward applicants with say at least 2 'As' and a 'B' at A-level then they will be guaranteed a place ?

This would produce a cohort of adequately qualified Oxford undergraduates that reflects the national distribution of privately and state educated children; would provide those from the state sector with a familiar and comfortable social environment in which to learn; and prove once and for all whether appropriate children from 'bog standard' backgrounds can excel at Oxford as well as those more privileged and wealthy.

Exeter - why don't you give it a go !

By Malcolm Forrest

Benefiting from the 11 plus to attend an independent London Day School, fully paid for by Surrey County Council, I remember the enormous pressure, accompanied by offers of prizes like watches, applied to children by their parents, especially middle class ones. Failure really was viewed as a condemnation to a second class life.
Although they did enable some children to climb from the absolutely lowest levels of society, the grammar schools were effectively colonised by the middle class. Margaret Thatcher created more comprehensives than any other Education Minister, to a considerable extent in response to middle class people, essentially Conservative Voters, already furious at or fearing for the effect of the 11 plus guillotine.
So the nefast effects in wasted potential of the grammar/secondary modern divide are clear. The problem now is that the comprehensive system also has faults. Having lived in the USA, which has a comprehensive system, returning to Britain as it was going this way, I knew what would happen. The middle class realised they now had to pay, either by moving to an area with good comprehensives, with higher house prices, or, if they wished to remain in the more inner city areas, send their children to independent schools, often at great financial pain. This has done nothing for social cohesion.
An additional tragedy is that, given the choice between independence and becoming comprehensive, most state funded Direct Grant Grammar Schools chose the former, thus depriving the free system of quality facilities and teachers. Today these schools provide Oxford with a significant part of its intake, contributing to press criticism of Oxford's selection system.
I find it difficult to chose between the past and the present. Emotionally, perhaps because it made me what I am, I lean towards the 11 plus, but objectively it is difficult to ignore its divisiveness.
Incidentally I do not accept the argument that all Oxford politicians are evil and totally self seeking, and be assured that not everybody from Balliol is a compulsive liar.

By Eleanor Rawling

I accept that this article may have been written in a light-hearted way. However, in addition to the inaccuracies about grammar schools, the distasteful gloating about Oxford successes and the apparent lauding of self-serving politicians, I was annoyed by the unhelpful and snide comments about geography. Geography is a rigorous and challenging discipline which is one of the few subjects to provide a 'big picture' perspective ranging across human's relationship with the planet and with each other. Rather than continue out-of-date prejduices about geography, the author should be welcoming the fact that we have a prime minister with an understanding of place, space, environment and globalisation. Faced with forging a new relationship with Europe, understanding issues about migration, trade and aid, and dealing with fundamental concerns about the environment, Theresa May at least has a sound geographical background with which to face the challenges of 21st century Britain and its place in the wider world. Please let's discontinue this unhelpful and out-moded stereotyping of a subject which has so much to offer.

By Michael Saunders

How interesting to read all the comments. I would much enjoy a discussion group on this subject. I went to a lowly ie non ancient grammar school in the 1950s from a working class background and was offered a new bicycle as an incentive to pass the 11+. In no way would I have been able to go on to a university education without this achievement and schooling. The sheer pleasure of being the one person in the whole school able and allowed to take A level Latin, a subject that has paid off for me hundreds of times since. My ambition to go on to Oxford could not be fulfilled until a late in life part-time Masters degree and attendance at a grammar school long ago has been a vital step in that process.

By Mike Staples

Not for the first time, I find myself ashamed to be an Oxford alumnus. I agree with nearly all the comments made so far. This crowing over the so-called "success" of the products of this university is nothing short of disgusting. These prime ministers and other members of government have wreaked enormous harm on this country by engineering a vast increase in inequality at home, whilst preaching the opposite. Grammar schools are a prime example of this but to that could be added right-to-buy, help-to buy etc. Now we are turning our backs on Europe to be pathetic little-englanders through the incompetence and/or over-inflated self-importance of these very people. Hundeds of thousands have lost their lives abroad through our clumsy forays onto the world stage.
These so-called well educated individuals ignore evidence and are more interested in personal power than the well-being of our fellow humans.
When I am asked where I went to University, I frequently say Heriot-Watt, where I gained a masters in engineering; I think it has produced far fewer wreckers of people's lives.

By Roger Thomas

Yes,it's distasteful.
Perhaps Mr.Lofthouse should consider whether Oxford's PPE curriculum is in danger of producing the same type of individual as France's ENA (Ecole Nationale d'Administration) from which most of its governing class is drawn-highly educated,elitist,out of touch,self- absorbed idiots.
Both countries deserve better.

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