Master's Blog

Elections and Teachers

by Mark Damazer on May 23, 2017

Two big events last week.

On Wednesday 17th, Helen Lewis and Ben Wright, two former students, came back here and powered their way through 75 minutes of election discussion.

About 175 people abandoned – for a brief period – exam preparation, or some such, and paddled their way into the chapel. (It was one of those soggy, chilly spring evenings that seem an Oxford speciality.) We had quite a few sixth formers from nearby schools – always good.  

Helen and Ben have done this before – in 2015 and last year for the Brexit vote, normally with Martin Ivens of The Sunday Times. They said, to my surprise, that there was a big chance that the polls are yet again overstating Labour’s vote, as they have done in almost all recent elections. They have both been out and about and, as of Wednesday, do not detect a Corbyn surge.

We discussed why it was not quite the Brexit election Theresa May had called for; why she was quite so (surprisingly) popular; why Labour had to work out how to define itself as a party that both does not want anything that feels like Blair, but could not rely on its historical roots with manual labour; why Tim Farron and the Liberal Democrats could not expect to get a big Remain boost; aspects of media coverage; and the need not to confuse the collapse of UKIP’s fortunes with the collapse in the passions of UKIP voters.

On Brexit, a late question from a St Peter’s Northern Ireland student, about the future of Northern Ireland post-Brexit, provoked a burst of feeling about the importance of this issue relative to its minuscule coverage.

A recent PPE student wanted to know what a modern version of Butskellism would look like – a different political centre. We all agreed that the UK voting system made a new centre party a very elusive prospect. 

I resisted pinning Helen and Ben to a prediction, but nobody seemed to me to be expecting a big surprise on 8 June. The St Peter’s election prediction game will be launched this week. A Hungarian Maths professor and a German PPE undergraduate have won the previous two political prediction exercises. The Brits are not much better at this than they are at the Eurovision Song Contest.

On Friday (19th), we were again the host of the Oxford University Inspirational Teachers Awards. This is a magnificent occasion held every year, which celebrate teachers who have done something extraordinary to help someone succeed in getting a place at Oxford. The students, during their first year, nominate a teacher who went beyond the call of duty to help them, and the wining teachers, from all over the UK, come to spend a day and a night in Oxford in May. The video of the teachers’ efforts is unfailingly powerful and moving. This year there were stories of teachers using 80s music, of ridiculous ties, of moving schools but continuing to help pupils in a previous school, of teachers who never gave up expanding the horizons of their best pupils – and much more. 

I have been to quite a few schools this year, and remain overawed by how good the most committed teachers are. I am coming to the end of a four-year stint as deputy Chair or Chair of the University’s Admissions Policy committee, and these visits are both a stimulus and a reminder of some of the inequities in school provision. What I now understand better than I did when I arrived at Oxford is the utterly central role of an individual teacher – or perhaps two – in constructively pushing the benefits of an education here.

There are many things that might yet be done to try to get more of the best students, no matter their background, to apply here and, indeed, to succeed in getting a place … but no amount of digital marketing and outreach will work without teachers’ support, which is often there, but not always.

And here is a link to a piece I wrote in the New Statesman about statistical illiteracy and interviewing in political discussion.

Tulips and blossom

by Mark Damazer on Apr 25, 2017

The not-yet-complete renovation of the college has had many benefits: better disabled access, much better entry from the street, better teaching spaces, and so on, but the tulips should not be under-estimated. The planting scheme has erupting moments – and April excels. Not the cruellest month - at least for those who like simple, bold colour schemes.

Here is the evidence:

Haggis takes over the hall

by Mark Damazer on Jan 31, 2017

Here is a low-tech slice of Burns Night in Hall – packed as usual – but in recent years spectacularly embellished by the performance of Dr Marina MacKay, Official Fellow in English, expert on modern British literature, Gaelic speaker and supreme exponent of ‘Address to a Haggis’. The knife-wielding moment is very fine.

The piper piped in the haggis, the choir gave us a Robbie Burns medley, the lads toasted the lassies and the lassies toasted the  lads, by now fuelled with a small tot of whisky (and only a small tot). The haggis was consumed and the noise in the hall, with its unforgiving acoustic, rose, but on a bitterly cold night we prospered.