18 October 2012

On the subject of A Levels

Ed Miliband’s “one nation” conference speech on 2 October was well received, even in the Tory press. Perhaps so much so that by the following weekend a reaction had to set in. For example, Martin Samuel in the Daily Mail:
There are two kinds of posh. There is the posh you can see. We all know those posh boys. They stand out a mile in their top hats and tails, their fancy traditions, that air of born to rule. They may as well be painted blue. Then there’s the other posh. Clever posh; connected posh; the posh that is so posh it can pretend to be poor.  
Ed Miliband got into Oxford with two B grades at A-level. Now that’s posh. Did you know Ed went to a comprehensive? You’d have to be stuck down a Chilean mine shaft not to. Miliband stood up at the Labour conference this week and shouted the odds for education, education, education. Not in the way that Tony Blair did it. The education Miliband banged on about was his own at Haverstock School in North London. Bleedin’ ’ell, cock, it was tough. And no doubt it was. Haverstock is no Camden School for Girls. It doesn’t have half the West End on its list of alumni. Yet, either way, no chances were taken when little Ed went to Haverstock. His father, Ralph, was a significant Left-wing intellectual and author and very highly regarded in academic circles. He could afford to go comprehensive. He knew he wasn’t going to be the progenitor of horny-handed labouring types.
and so on in the same vein until:
For the son of a prominent Marxist intellectual to end up leader of the Labour Party via Oxford, the LSE and Harvard: let’s say that’s not what you’d call a long shot. Ed Miliband got two As and two Bs at A-level and went to Corpus Christi College, Oxford, to read Politics, Philosophy and Economics. Try to do that now, without a foot in the door. Better still, try to do it if not one of your A-levels is in politics, philosophy or economics. Economics graduates always need maths, though, and Ed was good at maths. Not great. Further Maths was one of his B grades, actually. Even so, they took him. Now that’s posh.
So two Bs at the beginning of the article has become two As and two Bs by the end (maths and English and further maths and physics, respectively according to Wikipedia)!  Furthermore the current Oxford PPE entrance requirements make it clear that:
You may apply for PPE having done any combination of subjects at school; it is not necessary to have studied politics, philosophy or economics. History and Mathematics are useful backgrounds, but are not essential. Although a background in Mathematics is not formally required for admission, PPE applicants should have sufficient interest in, and aptitude for, mathematics to cope with the mathematical elements of the course. Mathematics is a particular advantage for the Economics component of the course, as well as for the first year logic course in philosophy, and for understanding theories and data in politics.
Ed Miliband took his A levels and went to Corpus Christi College, Oxford in 1989. At that time an entrance offer was secured by the level of performance reached in Oxford’s entrance examinations which he probably would have taken in late 1988. Presumably having done well enough to be offered a place, he subsequently secured whatever grades at A level were required of him. Of course, it would seem likely that having a father who was a professor of politics and an older brother (David) who had entered the same college to read PPE in 1983 could only have been helpful. According to a profile in the Daily Telegraph published in 2008, David’s A levels were three Bs and a D, subjects unspecified.

David Cameron also read PPE at Oxford (Brasenose College), taking the entrance exam in late 1984 to enter in 1985*. He had taken his A levels at Eton in 1984 getting As in economics with politics, history and history of art** - all a long way from the “math-science death march” Unlike art, history of art tends not to be viewed as a ‘soft’ (as opposed to the preferred ‘hard’) subject by the best universities when evaluating candidates.

Cameron: Practically a Conservative, Hanning and Elliott, pages *48 and **35.

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