Confessions of an Inadequate Examiner


	Examine not, that ye be not examined  Matt 7:1

Merton has Rent Audit dinners in June and December.  In June I explain to our tenant farmers that we are sending our livestock to market, and we are hoping they will do well and fetch a good price.  In December I say  we are going to market to buy in young beasts which we hope will flourish and improve under our tender care.  From a tutor's point of view the December exercise is more harrowing---a sea of scripts, endless interviews, tedious meeting, intense hard work, short nights and long hours, and sometimes heart-breaking decisions.  
	Modern thought has it that decisions are, or at least should be, taken on academic merit alone; but that is absurd.  It is not feasible to reach a firm ranking as between one candidate with a beta double plus in Latin translation and another with beta double plus, query beta treble plus in mediaeval history.  What I did, as I read the scripts, was first to pick out those who were so good that it would be shame if they did not come to Oxford.  Those were in the running for an award, either with us, or failing that, elsewhere.  They had done us the compliment of putting us first on their preference list, and we should reciprocate by doing our best to ensure that they got the award they deserved, bringing them to the notice of other Colleges if we could not give them one ourselves.  
	The other question I had in mind was whether it would be a shame if the candidate did come to Oxford.  Those, in the old days were de-summoned, that is, not required to come to Oxford for interview.  De-summoning was later dropped under pressure from outside.  It was a great mistake.  Of course, de-summoned candidates did not like being de-summoned.  But they were going to be disappointed anyhow, and better to be disappointed early in December, when there was still the school play or the final rugger match to provide compensation than just before Christmas, which would then be shrouded in gloom.  It is no kindness to no-hopers to bring them up to Oxford and have them hanging around looking at notice boards in the vain hope that some second College will want to see them.  And it wastes precious tutor time and attention.  Other tutors may be stronger, but I found that if I was interviewing from 9am to 9pm, different candidates dissolved into an indistinct blur, and I failed to be alert enough to ask those really on the borderline the penetrating questions that might reveal whether they had got what it takes to make a success of Oxford.  
	Most candidates were neither so weak as to be de-summoned nor so strong as to be worthy of an award.  I did not even try to assess them on academic merit alone.  Rather, I would ask myself what good would it do if we invested a lot of public money and perhaps 74 hours of our precious time in that particular candidate.  It may now be regarded as wicked prejudice, but I confess to often preferring the candidate who, it seemed, might later serve on the magistrates' bench or the education committee of a local authority, or be a youth club leader, to one who, though academically stronger, would spend his week ends drinking Nescafe while doing the competition in the New Statesman.  I also wondered how well the candidate would fit in with the others who were going to be admitted.  One man, whom we took on the recommendation of the historians, made all the difference to his PPE year; although only a middling second himself, he was the lynch-pin who brought them all together, arguing with one another and helping several to gain firsts.  It also proved a good policy to take one man from Ruskin: the fact that he had come up through his own efforts had a salutary effect on the others who had been propelled to Oxford on the moving staircase.  
	There have been many changes to the Admissions Exercise, nearly all retrograde, brought about by outside pressure.  The worst was the step-by-step abolition of the written examination at the behest of the State sector, which made out that it was not a level playing field.  The result was marked decrease in the number of candidates from State schools.  It was only to be expected.  Without written papers, tutors had to rely on A-levels, school reports and interviews, in each of which candidates from State schools were at a disadvantage.  A levels can be crammed, and independent schools are very good at cramming.  The school report from an independent school was usually a hand-written report from the house-master giving a detailed account of the strengths and weaknesses of the candidate.  It did not gloss over his weaknesses, but it enabled us to probe them in the interviews, and to reach a reasonably accurate judgement of his capabilities, which often would lead to his being admitted.  The school report from a comprehensive school was all too often a word-processed mish-mash of puff for the school and separate paragraphs from the candidate's teachers, each predicting an A or B, and saying that the candidate would make a good student.  It would then take quite a lot of interview time to focus on the candidate as an individual, and search for genuine merit.  
	Interviews are alarming for everybody.  But candidates from independent schools often have had some experience of talking to grown-ups---when the local MP came to lunch, or the bishop to supper after instituting the new vicar---and can make a stab at keeping the conversation going, whereas those from the State sector are often absolutely tongue-tied.  It may take a lot of precious interview time to get the candidate to talk---I remember failing to get any response from one candidate, until I hit upon horses, which unleashed a flood of enthusiastic sharing: before the next interview I quickly telephoned the tutor at the next on her list: ``Start with pony clubs and all will be well''.  Interviews are unreliable, useful only in the context of other information, enabling one to check whether it Is reliable.  The written examination is the fairest---although stressful, it is the same for candidates from State schools, who often have had to sit written tests, as for those from independent schools.  And it can reveal originality of mind and power of intellect more surely than any other test.  
	Another so-called reform was the abolition of the entrance awards.  It was argued that they were unfair, giving the stronger Colleges an undue share of the available talent.  So they were abolished, with the consequence that the stronger Colleges got a much larger share of the best candidates.  Entrance awards did not effect a complete redistribution, but they did achieve a partial one which was beneficial both to the Colleges and to the candidates themselves.  We need to re-establish entrance awards, and on a meaningful basis.  It is number one on my ``If I were very rich'' wish list.  
	It would be wrong to hark back to a golden age of Admissions.  I made many mistakes.  There are two Fellows of the British Academy I did not take.  But other Colleges did.  It was the great merit of the Oxford (and Cambridge) admissions system that many different people were involved, each having an incentive to get the best pupils, and each willing and able to back his fancy, with the all-important safeguard that if one examiner failed to spot a promising candidate, there were others eager to profit by his mistake.  But there were mistakes.  It was not a perfect system.  All that can be said in its defence is that mistakes were guarded against, and many were not made.  
	One standard criticism is that Oxford (and Cambridge) did not do enough to attract and admit candidates from the state sector,  The criticism, usually made by politicians or educationalists, is not borne out by my experience.  In my first year as a tutor, Merton made a College Order that any member of the Governing Body who visited a school should have his travelling expenses refunded.  Anecdotal evidence (my own included) suggests that while independent schools welcomed a visit, it was often difficult to get a foot inside the door of a comprehensive.  Merton set up a scheme with the West Riding of Yorkshire, whereby the local education authority nominated candidates at the age of sixteen, who then did A levels at our bidding, and were more or less guaranteed entry at eighteen.  The intention was to ``prime the pump''.  When the pump seemed sufficiently primed, we moved from West Yorkshire to Greenwich.  I believe other Colleges had similar schemes.  Certainly at Cambridge my son went out with many others visiting state schools to encourage applications from them.  Most recently my grandson at Richmond Sixth Form College listened to a talk by the Master of St Peter's explaining what Oxford is for and how to set about getting in.  When Mr Willetts says (Daily Telegraph, February 15th, 2011) ``We expect universities to do more...'', we are entitled to ask him to be more precise, and say what more.  Is every Head of a House to spend one day a week visiting in the state sector? How many days a year should Colleges devote to telling members of under-represented groups about themselves? How many hours of research time should college tutors give up in order to search for ``students with the greatest potential''?  We need to know.  
	We need to know, but are unlikely to be told.  Vague threats are accompanied by suggestions that we should lower standards required of those eligible for free school meals.  There is a deep confusion here between what university examinations try to be, and what many examinations have now become.  Examinations that have become just a matter of box-ticking give biassed results.  In choosing future undergraduates we try to avoid that.  Tutors come to have a fair idea of which schools train their candidates to perform at 120% of their real ability, and are also wary of those who, having worked very hard to get into Oxford, will then take a three-year rest to recover from their exertions.  If I am going to have to spend many hours closeted with a pupil over the next three or four years, I have every incentive to choose worthwhile ones.  There is an automatic discount for some performances, and a corresponding readiness to spot and value talent hidden by adverse circumstances.  But it can go too far.  I remember one occasion when Merton turned down a candidate who had come sixth in a university-wide test and had an alpha double minus on his general paper because he was predicted certainly to get A stars on three of his A levels, but might not get one on his fourth.  It was held that if a /Winchester scholar /could not be absolutely sure of getting four A stars, there must be something wrong with him.  Another College snapped him up, and in due course he got firsts in Mods and Finals.  
	More serious is the worry that we might be cajoled into taking people who are not up to it.  Of course this is something we sometimes do without Government help.  I remember in my Cambridge days havering with Michael McCrum over a candidate from a grammar school in the Welsh marches, and finally deciding, against our better judgement, to take him.  Eighteen months later he was in my rooms in tears: he just could not manage to memorise all the geology required for Part One of the Natural Sciences Tripos.  So too in Oxford, I have had occasionally to deal with mistakenly admitted undergraduates.  We do our best for them.  But the fact is that by our mistake we have wasted three years of their life in which they have been humiliated and made miserable, and sent them out into the world with  a profound sense of failure.  Contrary to what people in London think, an Oxbridge education is not a goody to be distributed to those the Government thinks ought to have it.  Instead, it is a challenge, a very tough challenge, which can be rewarding, but is exceedingly demanding.  To bring to Oxford those who cannot meet the challenge is not fairness, but cruelty.  
	But still I find it very hard to say No.  At breakfast, when I am faced with a choice of cereals, I take a little of each, because I cannot bring myself to reject completely any one of those on offer.  



/boy from that school/