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Do we need a British Ivy League?

Prep school head turned education consultant Peter Dix advises readers on whether we need an Ivy League for British universities.


Q I read last week that there is a new British equivalent of the American ”Ivy League’’, consisting of 10 universities or so, including Oxford, Cambridge, Warwick and Exeter. What is your opinion of this new so-called elite squad? Will their degrees carry higher value than those from ”lesser’’ universities? Our son will be applying next year, so some background would help us.

AL Stevens, Wiltshire

A There is already a “de facto” hierarchy in British universities that has built up over many years, with the oldest and most established ones clustered at the top. Rather like the most prestigious of the senior independent schools, people have heard about them, assume they are the best and so try to gain access to them. This in turn provides income, which allows improved research and other facilities, smaller teaching groups and the recruitment of more high-powered staff… all of which enhances results and draws in brighter and more academically ambitious students.

Inevitably this means that a 2:1 at Oxford or Cambridge is deemed to be a better outcome than the same from, say, Leeds Metropolitan, and so the job prospects of their graduates differ accordingly. The upshot is that more than half of all students with at least AAB at A-level are clustered in just 12 universities.

Whether you approve of all this or not depends on your views on elitism in education. There are many people who disapprove strongly of what the Coalition is proposing in its Higher Education White Paper, namely that universities will be free to expand in order to admit as many students with AAB or higher as they like. This is intended to increase competition and develop a “market” in higher education. Oxford and Cambridge have said they won’t expand – they want to remain exclusive – but others will, I’m sure.

Meanwhile, a dedicated pool of 20,000 places will be set aside for those institutions that agree to charge no more than £7,500 in fees: a response, in part, to so many universities opting to charge the maximum fee of £9,000.

The Paper also contains a promise to strengthen the Office for Fair Access (a sort of social mobility prefect) and also to take students’ backgrounds (as well as their exam results) into account to make the recruitment process fairer for applicants from disadvantaged families. The Government hopes too, of course, that its Academies and Free Schools programme will enhance the prospects of such students.

Q My son is considering his A-level options. He would like to study history, geography and economics with either religious studies or maths as his fourth subject. He plans to read history at a good university and I just wanted your opinion as to whether he might stand a better chance of being offered a place with the maths rather than the RS A-level. He is good at both subjects but finds the RS easier.

Name withheld by request

A If your son were aiming to do economics at university, he might be better advised to do maths but, with history in his sights, I am fairly certain that maths as a fourth subject per se would not impress university selectors more than RS. Just as importantly, however, I would advise your son, if he enjoys RS more than maths, to do that anyway; he may do better at it.

If he is not completely sold on history, he may want at least to think about theology, which should provide an easier route into Oxford or Cambridge (and probably other top universities) than history. All things being equal at this stage though, the advice, as to most pupils, would be do subjects a) you are best at and b) you enjoy.

Q We were interested to read what you said a few weeks ago about remote learning programmes to help children who are away from school for a time. Our son, has a medical condition which is keeping him at home. He attends an independent school which does not, alas, have the sort of set-up you described. Are there any other options?

Jane and Andrew, via email

A I am pleased to tell you that all local authorities do have a system in place for all children, whether in state or private schools, who are unable to attend for a while for medical reasons. Many independent schools and their parents are unaware of this. The minimum support is five hours a week, delivered at home, and support is overseen and sometimes actually delivered by a qualified teacher (with subject specialists sometimes available). This will be of limited use to those following the Common Entrance, Independent Schools’ Scholarship, iGCSE, IB or Pre-U curricula, and the number of hours per week is limited.

It is, however, much better than nothing; and I understand that last year 79 per cent of pupils receiving such “Individualised Provision” achieved better GCSE grades than those predicted by their schools. For more information go to and look up “Access to Education for Children With Medical Needs”.

Q I am sure I am something of a dinosaur, but I am depressed by the steady decline in the standards of English grammar, even in our schools. Can anything be done?

Pamela Hunter, Berkshire

A I am very much with you on this, Pamela, as I am sure most Telegraph readers will be. We have to accept, though, that every language is at all times of its development subjected to tension between what is held to be its current standard or “received” form and the day-to-day colloquial or “vulgar” form. The latter is, of course, much more flexible and easy-going, as well as creative, while the former seeks to apply a cautionary and conservative brake to the natural (and certainly inevitable) process of change running out of control. To shift metaphors, we must fight the daily battles without being confident of winning the war.

Cicero would probably have scowled at how his classical Latin has changed into modern Italian, French, Spanish and so on, but the outcome has not been entirely bad. For those of us similarly concerned to keep a check on the pace of change, or who need a reminder of what the correct grammatical form is, there is a very helpful resource in the shape of an English Grammar Card devised and made available by Joseph Donovan. He invites Telegraph readers to email and they will receive a free PDF copy of the card.

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