Sorry Lessons from Oxford

By Kelley, Paul | Newsweek International, June 19, 2000 | Go to article overview

Sorry Lessons from Oxford


Kelley, Paul, Newsweek International


Kelley is headteacher of Monkseaton High School in Newcastle, England.

The treatment of one of my state-school students has provoked a major political and media storm in Britain. The student, Laura Spence, won a scholarship to Harvard but was rejected by Oxford University. The whole of Britain has been drawn into debate, including Tony Blair, the prime minister, who has commented that he wants universities to "open their doors to people from all parts of society." But I think Laura Spence's story has lessons for the wider world as well.

On the surface, the fuss is about discrimination in British society. The British media have created a fierce controversy over Oxford's admission procedures and elitism in general. International press comments have been more cynical, claiming that the Laura Spence story is indicative of the quintessentially British problem of class and arrogance--and a reminder that a backward-looking Britain is still alive and well.

I think all of these commentaries, however valid, miss the larger picture. As an American, even though I've been in Britain for some 30 years, perhaps I find it easier to see that the underlying issues in the Spence case are not just about Britain.

Like so many other parts of our lives these days, education has become a global enterprise. In microcosm, my school is proof of just how global. Monkseaton High School is an ordinary state-funded school of 850 students in the unfashionable part of northeastern England. Over the past seven years it has sent 12 students to American universities-- two of them to Harvard. Monkseaton has, in turn, attracted students from other countries, including Germany and Latvia (and, for that matter, America). Monkseaton now almost routinely receives inquiries from students in Eastern European countries. Obviously, learning English is a big draw, but this pattern of student movement was unheard of five years ago.

The brain drain is a universal phenomenon, and countries that don't face up to the new reality will be losing some of their most precious resources. The northeast of England is its poorest region, and has experienced a severe loss of highly qualified professionals-to-be. Some of the most able 18-year-olds are going to other parts of Britain, even to other countries. What is happening here is happening to Britain as a whole. Most noticeably, there is a growing trend of British students' taking degrees in American universities. This year the number will break the psychological barrier of 1,000 students for the first time.

And what is happening at the secondary-school level is happening to higher education. Wherever they come from, today's students have a very different perspective on education from their parents'. …

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