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Inbox: CAM 96

- 22 minute read

Editor’s letter

Mira Katbamna

Welcome to the Easter Term edition of CAM. I know you will remember the atmosphere of almost preternatural stillness that descends on Cambridge at this time of year: students are preparing for exams; supervisors are fretting about their charges. But in one grassy corner, this is mere warm up for the real challenge: the Varsity Croquet Match.

Meanwhile, CAM has been pondering the mystery of quantum, and now Cambridge physicists are exploring its impact on the future of energy. While an altogether different kind of magnetic moment is available – with sequins, orchestra and heartbreaking moments. The musical is back – so we asked leading theatre-makers just why musical theatre exerts a hold that won’t let go.

Elsewhere the Vice-Chancellor Professor Stephen J Toope reflects on the details of his time leading our great university. And finally, we examine why satire is so important to public discourse.

On these topics – and on all things Cambridge related – we look forward to your contribution to the debate, online, by post, email or on social media.

Mira Katbamna (Caius 1995)


What I love about CAM is the glorious, apparently serendipitous variety – thank you for this issue (CAM 95) covering night climbers, cancer treatment, camel parasites and more! And there are some articles which live long in the memory – just last month, I was sharing the wonderful story of Cromwell’s skull (Michaelmas 1996!) in a sermon. Keep up the good work!

Simon Coupland (St John’s 1978)

The Michaelmas edition of CAM was focused on sustainability and reduction of human impact on our planet. Of course, the most direct way of reducing future human impact would be to work towards curtailing growth of the human population. Is there any ongoing research at the University addressing this issue, including the challenges associated with gradual population decline?

Richard Kind (Clare 1964)

Proud parent: toddler can say ‘CAM’ (also known as Cambridge Alumni Magazine). Now just need to learn that’s what the river is called, too.

Sarah Harbour (Emmanuel 1998) via Twitter

Night Climbers

I’m probably not the only one to respond to your fascinating article! I was at Caius in the 1960s; my room was in the turret at the very top corner of Caius, nearest to Great St Mary’s. I was woken one night by scuffling on the roof – I opened the window, invited them in and so joined the fraternity. Our greatest achievement was putting footprints across New Hall dome – I still have the press cuttings from the time. Decades later I felt able to admit to this; I wrote an article for The Caian and, later, one for New Hall, as it still was at the time.

Chris Barry (Caius 1965)

Your excellent article “The Night Climbers of Cambridge” (CAM 95) rightly recalls the stunning night-time assembly and erection of an Austin 7 van on the Senate House roof in 1958.

It fails, however, to mention an even more hazardous ascent at that time that left an item of ladies’ underwear fluttering indiscreetly on top of one of the crumbling limestone spires of King’s College Chapel – perhaps for the same reason that the Cambridge Union debate motion, “This house prefers Girton to Newnham because it’s further away”, seems to have been consigned to the dustbin of history.

Trevor Lyttleton (King’s 1954)

Your story about the Cambridge Night Climbers reminds me of a similar escapade that happened at Sidney Sussex while I was there between 1973 and 1976. Some unidentified wags had managed to erect the posts from the college rugby ground on the college roof.

Impressive yes, but obviously not in the same league as the Austin 7 van put on the roof of the Senate House in 1958. The back story of that episode was that, publicly, the miscreants were severely admonished by the University authorities, but privately given a crate of champagne in recognition of their ingenuity and bravery.

Ian Barclay (Sidney Sussex 1973)

Bridge of Sighs joining phones with emojis on bridge


The article, “AI research puts focus on core human values” (CAM 95), raises uncertainties about “understanding the potential impact of algorithms on human dignity”. Certainly, internet algorithms are being misused to curb our rights to free speech and unofficial data sources.

Moreover, the term ‘AI’ misrepresents ‘intelligence’, which is much more than programming devices to learn, make decisions or promote misinformation. Intelligence is a faculty involving: information processing; imagining future issues; inventing solutions; and initiating them – what I call ‘the Four Is’ – taking a gamut of externalities into account. Why is there no Faculty of Intelligence? Would it be a threat to the “rich elite”, fearing it may ‘level up’ people who are potentially intelligent but not adept at regurgitating facts in exams? Or is it too confused with sinister state apparatuses obsessed with spying, fake ‘intelligence’, dodgy dossiers and making war?

Such a faculty could transform education and economic activity from stagnating to thriving and generating a socially beneficial people’s world order.

James Thring (Peterhouse 1975)

Digital humanities

The CAM 95 cover question, “What does it mean to be human in a technological world?”, is vital but was not answered in the article. Another brief article referred grandly to “principles that put ethics at the heart of technological progress” and to “core human values” (that were not defined). Surely these questions and issues should be at the heart of Cambridge enquiry?

Alastair Bates (Trinity 1971)

My Room Your Room

Vice-Chancellor Stephen Toope referred to the must-have items he brought to Cambridge (CAM 95). My brother (St John’s) and his wife (Robinson) told me that the most important thing to bring was verisimilitude. Better advice I could not have wished for. 

Matthew McDade (Homerton 1996)

The special relationship

CAM 95’s “Best friends forever?” includes the statement “America never replicated the British colonial model.” True. Instead of exploiting their colonised peoples in North America, Americans  killed them in war or let them die of disease. I am angry when North Americans denounce the British Empire without recognising their own genocidal model of colonialism.

John Anderson (King’s 1957)

While there was some interesting historical context in this article, it was underweight in looking forward to what might happen next and did not analyse in any depth the factors that may create a push/pull between US and UK. For instance, the fact that the UN has been neutered by China and Russia means that body is now redundant in keeping alive the liberal democratic consensus that existed post the Second World War. While Britain built an empire in the 19th century, America did not, and by the mid-20th century, America was openly critical of Britain’s empire – a strong factor that pushed the British to give up on empire.

Neville Rolt (Pembroke 1967)

This idea must die (CAM 96)

As the son of an illegal bookie, perhaps I could suggest why the “idea that grammar schools were good for social mobility” persists? It’s because so many of my post-war generation went to one, became the first member of their family to go to university, when only a tiny percentage of the population did so, and rose to positions of local and national importance. Isn’t that social mobility?

A more pressing issue is whether all schools are now inspiring young people to realise their full potential, socially and academically. If they don’t, they fail not only their students but the country too.

Peter Rubin (Emmanuel 1968)

At a statistical level, Peter Mandler’s claim that “grammar schools didn’t give more opportunities to more people, they gave more opportunities to the same people” may be correct. However, in the 1950s, grammar schools provided the education and socialisation that enabled a small number of exceptionally talented working class children to realise their potential to achieve at the highest level, rather than merely take their place among the mass of service industry white-collar jobs to which Professor Mandler refers. This was in stark contrast to their talented forebears whose self-education and enthusiasm for science and the arts led them only to jobs in white-collared service to the aristocracy or, when these evaporated, down the pits. I am describing my own family, of course.

Niall MacKay (Queens’ 1985)

Peter Mandler’s piece (CAM 95) on the failure of grammar schools to promote social mobility was interesting, but the real question is why the UK still overvalues public schools. These institutions buttress social privilege but we persist in seeing them as centres of excellence, even allowing their headteachers to consider themselves experts on education. Shouldn’t we be celebrating the achievements of teachers in all state sector schools in confronting the problems foisted on pupils by the remorseless rise in social inequality? And shouldn’t we also impose a moratorium on Old Etonians entering government?

Simon Kensdale (Peterhouse 1972)

Rather than take an objective attitude towards grammar schools, Professor Peter Mandler appears to adopt a view that is already biased against them. He states that “parents rejected them” and “sociologists proved they didn’t work”. Parents do not reject grammar schools – in fact parents move heaven and earth to get their children into them, and what ‘proof’ have sociologists ever given that they do not work? Sociologists would never find anything positive to say about these schools and, like Professor Mandler, always appear to ‘prove’ their views from an already fixed position.

Since when did the word ‘children’ drop from your vocabulary? I find the constant reference to ‘kids’ both patronising and offensive.

Ann Keith (Wolfson 1986)

Professor Peter Mandler (CAM 95) concludes his attack on grammar schools by claiming that they “didn’t give more opportunities to more people, they gave more opportunities to the same people”.

My grammar school gave me – a boy from a modest background – a superb education, and enabled me to go up to Cambridge with an exhibition in 1968. It was one of seven grammar schools in Leicester at that time that achieved significant Oxbridge entries. All of them were state schools, which took pupils regardless of social class and parental income. In those days not a single child in the city paid for his/her secondary education. These fine state grammar schools were destroyed by those who hated the idea of working class children “betraying their backgrounds” by taking on the manners and attitudes of the middle class. And now the only boys and girls in Leicester who still receive a grammar school education are those whose parents can afford the fees at the private schools that sprang up after the enemies of selective education had done their nasty work. Today, the clever children of poor families have to make do with the comprehensives. But, of course, that is fine by Professor Mandler, who wants us to believe that grammar schools did not facilitate social mobility and whose detestation of them appears truly visceral.

Francis Bown (Jesus 1968)

This article’s sole purpose was apparently to denounce the grammar schools of the 1960s and 1970s in a quasi-Stalinist manner, without any attempt at balanced argument or logical reasoning. It failed to acknowledge that readers could reasonably hold other views than those of the authors and avoided presenting any persuasive or firm evidence to support its spurious assertions. In short the article demonstrated none of the academic rigour one would expect in a magazine intended for University of Cambridge graduates. I wondered where the authors themselves were educated and how they came to have such ill-informed prejudice against the proven achievements of the grammar schools.

The truth is that direct-grant, non-fee paying grammar schools, particularly in the 1960s and early 1970s, gave very many people of my generation, coming from widely differing social backgrounds and family circumstances, an educational experience and a foundation for living that they have treasured for the rest of their lives. The grammar school ethos  encouraged hard work alongside an understanding of the views and circumstances of other people; taught the importance of fair competition; valued intellectual discipline and scholarship; and opened unimagined doors on appreciating and better understanding the world around us. That education was freely available to those with whom I experienced being a pupil from 1966 to 1973, many of whose parents would never have been able to afford a fee paying school. In the academic year in which I was awarded a place to study history at Cambridge, I recall 14 of my contemporaries at Wolverhampton Grammar School also won places at Oxford or Cambridge on merit, several of them being awarded scholarships.

Having studied the political process by which direct-grant grammar schools were largely done away with from the late 1960s onwards, I have noted that the people who took the fateful and foolish decisions towards that purpose under the phoney banner of ‘equality’ (Anthony Crossland being a glaring example) had often themselves been privately educated at public schools, their own exclusive education paid for by their wealthy families.

David Billingsley (Peterhouse 1973)

Professor Peter Mandler’s dismissal of the role played by grammar schools in social mobility during the post-war period (CAM, Issue 95), is perhaps too dismissive of that role. His article certainly includes some historical references which may be questioned.

In the first place, it was the 1970s, rather than the 1960s, that saw the replacement of most grammar schools with comprehensives. Circular 10/65, which allowed LEAs to replace grammar schools in their areas, had only led to the closure of a third of such schools by the early 1970s. It was during the following decade that comprehensives became the mainstay of secondary education in England and Wales.

Secondly, the 1963 Robbins Report included a survey of university participation among 21-year-olds in 1961/2. That showed that around four per cent of people from homes of the manual classes went into higher education, as against 19 per cent from non-manual families, following on from a grammar school education. Some of these did indeed move into the upper echelons of society and aspired to high ranking professions. However, there is also evidence that there was a marked difference across the country in the provision of grammar school places. Thus, in some areas, as many as 40 per cent of the population (including the working class) passed the 11+ and went to grammar school, whereas in other areas the figure was lower than 10 per cent. It was not surprising therefore that in the country as a whole, during the 1970s and later, the comprehensive system was regarded as likely to provide more social mobility than had the grammar schools before them.

Professor Mandler also makes the point that a third of people from Class 1 backgrounds end up in Class 1 jobs, irrespective of the fact that they lack the relevant educational qualifications. Here, he appears to have underestimated the roles played by both nepotism and public schools in frustrating upward mobility from other classes. Indeed, the pendulum does appear to have swung back in favour of those who can afford to buy an education for their children. One significant demonstration of this can be shown when we consider the education of British prime ministers. Between 1964 and 1990, and again between 2016 and 2019, a grammar school-educated incumbent was in office (compared with just one from a comprehensive school, in 1990-97). It does appear, therefore, that a public school education has once again become the norm for our prime ministers, just as it was in Victorian times and before the 1944 Act.

Martin Peers (Trinity Hall 1964)

As a working class boy (brought up in a council flat in Waterloo by my mother, who worked as a table clearer at a Lyons teashop) who went to a grammar school en route to Caius, I read Peter Mandler’s piece with interest.

Although I agreed with much of what he said, I think he missed making two key points. First, as I discovered when I broke off my undergraduate studies to pursue a year’s fellowship at the Urban Training Centre in Chicago and met, among other inspiring tutors, Ivan Illich, there is a world of difference between education and schooling. The former takes place in a very wide range of settings and is where the individual discovers a great deal about themselves and is led out beyond by exploration to new horizons – in my case the streets around Waterloo where I ran with mates. The latter primarily takes place inside walls (institutions), and programmes the majority into understanding their place in life and society.

This relates to my second point. Mandler seems to miss a key role of socialisation, which I have just referred to. I consider myself very lucky to have developed a curiosity about what is going on around me from an early age, alongside the luck I enjoyed as a result of being able to pass exams. Peers, and mass and social media, also play major roles in our programming today. I yearn for a time when curiosity and critical thinking take centre stage in order that a paradigm shift can take place in our understandings of political and economic systems – systems that clearly need transformation rather than tinkering with if this planet and society is to be just and sustainable.

Stephen Lancashire (Caius 1967)

Professor Peter Mandler argues rightly that grammar schools are not a valuable tool for promoting social mobility, but that is surely a nuance in a much wider issue of our time. The growing disparity in earnings and wealth has the potential to dislocate society and is a major concern.

What can schools do? Social mobility is driven by personal aspiration – a desire by children to have a better standard of living than their parents. Schools can encourage this but not create it. Research shows that given a choice between good parents and a bad school, or vice versa, children would be better off with good parents. State schools account for less than 30 per cent of a child’s waking hours. The influence of the other 70+ per cent outweighs what schools can do. A benefit system to support the most vulnerable has sadly also created benefit dependency and a class of children who expect to live as their parents do, leading to citizens with no investment in community and low life expectancy. Children from fee-paying schools do better in general as they have three major advantages: they have parents who value education and can help them to understand and access the world of work; and they spend longer in school.

Having lived and worked in industry in many parts of the world, it is clear that aspiration to do better than one’s parents is much more evident in emergent economies and immigrants. To take one example, look at the high proportion of ethnic Chinese and Indians in the west publishing research papers in science, engineering and medicine. The tragedy of this is that there are very many disadvantaged students in the MAT (Mathematics Admissions Test), of which I am a Trustee, who have enquiring minds and energy that would be very valuable to business and society – if they only had the ambition to use their talents in this way.

Selective education will not transform society, it will merely reinforce the divides. We need to think again about schooling and about social values. The world of work and job roles are now very different from what they were 20 years ago, while schools and the curriculum haven’t changed very much in the last 50 years. We are not educating children with the skills they need for work, either now or in their mid-careers. Perhaps if the curriculum was more relevant, more children would engage. Society too needs to change. In the west we have become a society focused on personal rights and the belief that everything that goes wrong is someone else’s fault. We need to find a way back to more self-reliance and personal responsibility.

Ralph Pickles (King’s 1965)

I read Peter Mandler’s article with interest as I was one of those who benefited from a grammar school education in the 1950s. As a result, I enjoyed a career that would otherwise have been impossible for a working class boy from Hull. According to Peter’s figures, I was one of the 10 per cent of working class children who went to grammar schools each year. Clearly, this was unfair for those working class children who did not pass the 11+. According to the Sutton Trust, we now live in a society which is unfair for all working class children. Am I the only one who fails to see this as progress?

John Mapes (Churchill 1961)

Having read Peter Mandler’s article about grammar schools and social mobility, I am writing to take issue with his central concept. Grammar schools did promote social mobility and I am living proof of that. As a working class boy in Lincoln I must have taken one of the first 11+ exams because I went to grammar school in 1945, a year after the Butler Education Act of 1944. Yes, I did have a supportive home background, but everything about the family was working class and a lot of my contemporaries at my grammar school were from similar backgrounds. Without the education I received at that school I would not, 10 years later and after two years’ National Service, have gained entrance to Pembroke and subsequently had a career in teaching. I had clearly gained social mobility into the middle class in addition to academic qualifications.

As Peter Mandler says, grammar schools largely ceased to exist in subsequent decades because of changes in attitudes to selection at 11+, but not, in my view, because they did not produce social mobility. Incidentally, the last 15 enjoyable years of my career were spent as the head of a large 11-18 comprehensive school!

Michael Howseman (Pembroke 1955)

Peter Mandler’s case that grammar schools do not promote social mobility follows a long tradition of Cambridge thinking. The Education Act 1944, driven by RA Butler (Pembroke 1921) and (perhaps less well-known) James Chuter Ede (Christ’s 1903), provided secondary education for all. Ede ensured it made no reference to grammar or secondary modern schools, or the 11+ – a fact often lost in the 80-year debate on this subject.

Ede, who knew state education intimately as pupil, teacher, local authority member and trade unionist, saw to it that LEAs would be able to choose how to organise their secondary schools. When Attlee won the 1945 election, Ede unexpectedly became home secretary. Without indulging in conjectural history, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that, had Ede been education minister as he expected, the course of this debate would have been very different.

When researching my biography of Ede, I discovered his comment that “in the small towns of England the multilateral [ie comprehensive] school would find itself”. It would be good to think that has indeed occurred.

Stephen Hart (Christ’s 1968)

Professor Peter Mandler writes that grammar schools did not cause social mobility and did not help working class kids. I am sceptical of his analysis for subjective reasons because I have friends, ex grammar schools, who are now accountants and lawyers whose parents were working class. Secondly, when I was at Cambridge, half of the students came from state schools (grammar schools) and did not need preferential treatment to get in.

However, the statistics are less important than providing educational choice to families who cannot afford private schools. I have spent 15 years teaching maths to ethnic minority children and, overwhelmingly, their parents would choose a grammar school if places were available. They want an academic atmosphere where their clever, studious children can thrive amongst like-minded students and not be diverted by the priorities of football, alcohol and social media.

Grammar schools give them this choice and should be allowed to expand. This idea must live again.

Jeremy Collis (St John’s 1969)

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