A few months ago thousands of Oxbridge hopefuls got their rejection letters. Their dreams forged in cold stone and manicured lawns, musty libraries and earnest chatter were dashed in one fell swoop by the cruel and discerning hand of the admissions tutor.
Proportionately few applicants will have been state-educated. The Oxbridge admissions system is, as we know, bloated by candidates from top public schools. Four top independent schools (Eton, Westminster, St Paul’s, and St Paul’s Girls’) have, along with Hills Road Sixth form, sent more students to Oxbridge than 2,000 UK state schools collectively.
A new vision is emerging for some London teenagers. In the last two years, my alma mater, Holland Park School - an excellent state school in west London, known, ironically, as ‘the Eton of comprehensives’ – sent five of its students to Oxbridge. Meanwhile, four have become jihadis in Syria, and two more have been accused of smuggling cash to fund terrorism for Isis. It is a similar story in a number of other top London state schools, including Bethnal Green Academy. How is it that, for teenagers at some of the best comprehensives the state has to offer, it somehow appears more likely that they will become involved in an extremist rebel group than get a place at one of our top universities?
Is sneaking through the Turkish border and trekking across the Syrian desert a walk in the park compared to the unfathomable rigours of the elite universities admissions process? Colleges like King’s may be progressively inclusive, but they can hardly set up a wannabe jihadi quota, can they.
In more innocent times, when Isis was mentioned in the same breath as Oxbridge it was usually referring to Oxford’s river, or its long-running left leaning magazine. Now the word in any context is invariably tainted with a new and ominous meaning.
Holland Park School is no bog-standard comp. Ofsted deems it ‘Outstanding’. It is incredibly well-funded, right in heart of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea: one of the country’s most affluent areas with the highest concentration of millionaires per square mile of anywhere in the UK.
The people from my school were exposed to the very heartland of liberal, secular leftism. Tony Benn famously sent all of his kids to Holland Park. It is a flagship for comprehensive education – even David Cameron looked around it for his daughter.
It was also the most tolerant place to learn one could possibly imagine. As far as anyone was aware, there was no trace of extremism to be found anywhere. As one of my school contemporaries, Nathan Akehurst, pointed out in his New Statesman article, ‘if you’re looking for crippling social exclusion and Luton-style ethnic tensions, don’t go to Kensington’. The girls from Bethnal Green Academy were A grade students, also educated at an ‘Outstanding’ institution.
The tendency in conversations concerning Isis is too often about pitting barbarism against Western liberal, secular sensibilities, when the reality of it is that these Isis recruits are no strangers to our cosy, civilised enclaves. The kneejerk reaction among London journalists is to jump in and compete with each other about how much they deplore and denounce this savagery.
It is a bourgeois battlecry, a kind of competitive liberalism that deliberately ignores the alienation and myriad influences these young people have been subject to. A climate of mistrust is growing in our media, and deepening the divide between ‘us’ and ‘them’ still further.
These are normal kids at good London schools, who have been victims of the clever and seductive role of grooming and manipulation involved in the Isis recruitment scheme. Last week Grace Dent, queen regent of the jammy media twitterati, said of the Bethnal Green trio: ‘If the sight of gay men plummeting to their deaths excited you so much that you went and spent five years aiding and abetting the homophobic carnage, forgive me, but I don’t want to come across you in Bethnal Green Tesco Metro.’ To deny the notion of vulnerability and innocence in these children - not to mention to disregard their inevitable rape, the horrors they will experience, and death - is abhorrent. These are teenagers, targeted because of their very naivety; not evil, murderous villains.
When politicians and commentators sit on Question Time and brand these girls ‘terrorists’, they forget that these children have not been radicalised in an extremist camp, but while they were pupils at good state schools run by our own government. We are loath to discuss whether our society has failed them in some fundamental way, or question what it was that disillusioned them while they were growing up in some of the best environments our education system can offer.
These children are targets, not terrorists. In refusing to talk about what led them to their decisions, we alienate them even further.They were led to believe that a gap year experience in Iraq and the Levant was a more exciting prospect than applying to university.The dark glamour of jihad managed to infiltrate the minds of my schoolmates more than the prospect of gowns and tutors ever could.
If even relatively privileged kids, living in desirable areas of London, at top state schools are choosing global jihad over education, what hope do those from much more disadvantaged backgrounds have?