After many happy years writing End Piece, there came the big heave ho. 'Come higher, friend', said the Editor – disguising that what he really meant was closer to the middle. The previous author of this column was in his spare time an expert on Thomas Hardy – he who advised that 'If way to the better there be, it exacts a full look at the worst'. The Editor clearly had that quotation in remembrance.
The column is supposed to deal with an issue of the moment. The issue is pretty obvious. As Liam Byrne famously put it in a Treasury note: 'I'm afraid to tell you there's no money left'. Headmasters of the Noughties accepted the dictum that independent education thrives at times of economic growth and Labour Government. We have neither. Charities, businesses, district councils, sixth form colleges, motor manufacturers, they all have the same problem. Less money involves a bigger dilemma about what to spend it on. So why not economise by pulling your child out of prep school? Or out of senior school after GCSEs? Might that constitute the route to the best university?
It used to be said that there were two myths about tertiary education: the first was that universities discriminated against independent school candidates; the second was that they discriminated in favour of them. Both could not be true; and the truth was and remains that admissions tutors are competitive and pick the best candidates regardless of background. No one right-minded can complain if universities select on potential not just prior attainment – least of all independent schools, which play exactly the same game. Nor have I ever known a parent who objected to making a contribution to the bursary schemes which make such access possible.
The pressures now on universities – especially from the Office for Students – are greater, and over the last two years, especially at Oxford and Cambridge, the position has shifted. Oxbridge Admissions Tutors have wisely been seeking to alter their potentially off-putting image by inviting prospective students to come and visit them; and once such students see reality, they like what they see. If we want a better UK plc (and goodness don't we need one) an increase in competition – fair competition – has to be a sensible way forward. Any parent who thinks they can pay for an Oxbridge place – or for the tuition that will get them a certain place – needs to get a hold of the realities.