Going to an elite university exposed me to the people that made me most nervous: the well-spoken, (supposedly) clever people. My first instinct was to flee from this strange new world with its archaic traditions, funny language and weird social habits. But I was too proud to go home defeated, so I decided to fight instead. It didn’t take long for me to realise that the posh kids were all leather shoes, woollen jackets, small-talk and bullshit. I soon shrugged off the idea that there were some mystical clever people somewhere that were better than me: I’d now met them, come up against them one on one, and they were often bang average. I could hold my own on anything substantive. I’d grown up among straight-talking tough people who loved to argue in smoky pubs, so Oxford tutorials felt strangely familiar.
If I’d been confined to a plastic chair, and told to sit in silence and listen for an hour to someone who wasn’t very interesting talk about a subject I hadn’t chosen to be interested in, I suspect I’d have messed about and misbehaved, just as I did as a teenager. But Oxford wasn’t like that. The teaching was personalised, flexible and interactive. That kind of system keeps people like me in the room, fired up and engaged. Kids like me, who don’t flourish in school, can benefit from such attention, and focus, and belief. A good society would strive to give it to them.