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August 18, 2004


john b

While mentioning Oxbridge, I'm still baffled at why, in the name of egalitarianism, they abolished the process centered on the (more based on academic potential, if done right) test-based admissions process, and replaced it with a process centered on (more based on social confidence) interviews and (more based on quality of school) A-levels and STEPS papers...

Oh, and I'm told the plumbing bubble is bursting, as thousands of disgruntled professionals get in on the act. The best thing to do is leave school at 18 and start in today's equivalent of what web development was seven years ago; unfortunately I'm not quite sure which profession this is.


I read somewhere that hairdressing was the biggest growth industry of the nineties. Our kid's got a good way with an equation, but I'd be a bit nervous of him weilding scissors in anger.


Fair point john b, but why should the admission tests be based on aptitude rather than training any more than A-Levels? Haven't they always had interviews as well...?

john b

1) A good argument in the past was that A-levels aren't just a signal for universities, who should be focusing on aptitude, but also employers, who are rightly also concerned about ability (hiring a typist who can't write isn't ideal, even if they have an IQ of 140). However, now that 92% of people who get 2 or more A-levels go onto university anyway, this is weakened.

2) Yes, but the entrance exam was weighted significantly above interviews before they abolished it (indeed, they still have a 'written test at interview' for several subjects, but it's given a much lower weighting).

Chris Brooke

Quick comments on Oxbridge, etc.

(1) I think that only Cambridge uses (or has ever used) the STEPS papers, or whatever they're called. The standard Oxford A-level offer is now a straightforward AAA, in a world in which most applicants are doing at least four A-Levels.

(2) I sometimes share John b's bafflement. Back in the 1980s, the entrance exams were criticised, and moving to an interview-plus-conditional-offer model was supposed to be an example of progressive reform. It's not clear to me that it really is, and now, of course, it's that model that's under attack in turn.

(3) Some subjects do have written tests, but they aren't supposed to be more than an hour long. There's a big difference, I think, between sitting three two or three-hour exam papers (the ancien regime) and sitting a one hour test. I think.

I have other opinions on this subject, but those (I hope) will do for now.


Following up on what Chris said, I think that

a. john b may be overestimating the formality of the Oxbridge, or at least Oxford, admissions system. Some subjects have tests, some don't, and how much the tests count for as opposed to exam results or interviews or UCAS statements depends very much on the attitude of the individual college tutor. Which is not a bad thing.

b. I take a rather unusual view, at least in Oxford, that abolishing the old entrance exam was a good thing. I applied when you could choose whether or not to take it, and would never in a million years have taken an exam that I knew that people in independent schools were being prepared for, something my comprehensive couldn't do. Sure, they were being prepared for interviews too, but at least the genre was more familiar.

The thing is, all these methods, interviews, exam results, special tests and exams, can favour those with an expensive education if the tutors concerned don't think about that and try to minimise the effect of shop-bought preparation and confidence. So given that in fact a good tutor will see through, and around, these problems in any format, I think that the trick is to use selection formats which don't disconcert candidates from less privileged backgrounds. Which does not include three hour written exams which seemed (whether or not they actually were) designed to test for brilliance rather than potential, but might well include the kind of shorter, more down to earth and practical subject tests taken in school before coming to interview that are slowly being introduced.

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