By Caroline Jackson


Earlier this month, the celebrated writer, Oxford graduate and former don, Alan Bennett preached a resolutely secular 'Sermon before the University' at King's College Chapel here in Cambridge. On the subject of privilege and unfairness of opportunity, it's widely available to read online, though it’s better, if possible, to spare 20 minutes listening to the recording. I found Bennett's inimitable voice and intelligent delivery distracted so enjoyably from his lacerating content that I had to listen twice. 

Then, assuming you've further time and inclination, and haven't already read or seen it one form or another, try to watch the 2006 film adaption of his acclaimed play, The History Boys, written in 2004. Next, if you're still on board, consider what shared factors might promote, or dilute, the burning ambition of very many current sixth form students, thirty years down the line but just like the boys in Bennett's play, to continue their studies, and begin their tertiary education, at either Oxford or Cambridge.

Course content and teaching? Tuition and living costs? Job prospects on graduation? Student life and opportunities? All of these, at one, common stage, are future unknowns, contingent on first getting the university place, be it at Oxford, Cambridge or anywhere else. And that coveted, hard-won place, which in each and every instance is the key to a future, is often an entirely collaborative effort between the future undergraduate and his or her current teachers. In Bennett's mise en scène, there should be excellent teaching available everywhere and equal educational opportunity for all but, as the undergraduates here and elsewhere disperse for the summer, it's hard not to agree that Oxbridge remains a tiny cake for the very few.

Many schools and individual teachers from both sectors, state-maintained and independent, effectively promote and support their pupils' aspirations — the Irwins and Hectors of the profession bookend this talented and committed spectrum. There are, however, unknown numbers of sixth formers with both enormous ability and great aspirations but without the teachers or teaching to help construct the necessary, still narrow, bridge into Oxbridge. Both Oxford and Cambridge continue to reach out to them — and loudly chorus their ability to recognise and support raw, untutored potential, trumpeting still louder the need for further resources in the cause — but with varying measures of success. As Bennett so recently preached to his audience of the converted here in Cambridge, they need more hands reaching out to grasp from the other side. Sometimes those hands need a shove, as well. And that requires a revolution.

Footnote: On June 17th at a beauty pageant in Torquay, a fifth year Cambridge University medical student and current holder of the title Miss Cambridgeshire 2014, was crowned Miss England 2014 . She will now go on to compete for the title of Miss World 2014. This year, Oxford University marks 40 years of full and equal co-education for women. 

Image by National Media Museum under Creative Commons license.