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Adrian Wooldridge

From Aristocracy to Meritocracy: the Revolution in Britain’s Top Schools

Two photographs, 35 years apart, show how far higher education has come in the U.K.

Oxford University.

Oxford University.

Photographer: Carl Court/Getty Images Europe

The photograph that is most closely associated with Oxbridge shows ten young men in 1987, dressed in white tie and tails, staring at the camera with all the floppy-fringed arrogance they can muster. These are the members of the Bullingdon Club, Oxford’s most exclusive dining society: a clique whose members have been wrecking local restaurants and vomiting in local flower beds since the 1780s. Two of the young men in the photograph went on to become prime minister, David Cameron and Boris Johnson.

Yet perhaps a more appropriate photograph is one that was published on Monday. This shows 89 young men and women — the vast majority of them from ethnic minority backgrounds — standing outside Brampton Manor Sixth Form in the London Borough of Newham. Their faces are wreathed in smiles but there is not a touch of arrogance about them. If they feel that the world is at their feet, it is because they have worked hard, not because they were born to rule. These students have all been given conditional offers to study at Oxford and Cambridge universities.