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Dish of the day

The young tutor says they're looking for "potential"; the hopefuls gaze back at him, wondering if they have what it takes. Can they be original and work independently or would they need stoking and spoonfeeding, as at school?

As he paints the portrait of a student reading English at Cambridge, the young man conveys his own romance with the subject, a passion which he and his colleagues clearly expect potential undergraduates to share. I understand this, but wonder what the four 17-year-olds I have brought from The Bishop's Stortford High School to the arts open day at Selwyn College make of it.

Like other lower-sixth students, Laura, Katie, Claire and David are visiting Cambridge to see if the style of education suits them. Traditionally for pupils from the state sector, the issue has been a social as much as an academic one. Porters at the gate and flunkies in hall can alieniate a generation unused to formality.

But my quartet are confident enough to ask a few questions. Katie is concerned about the provision for swimming; Claire wants to know about the importance of having studied Chaucer and Laura just needs to find out how much reading is involved. David is the only silent one, perhaps feeling outnumbered by his confident female companions, a sex ratio not yet equalled at Selwyn. The proportion of men to women is currently 55:45.

We eat lunch in hall, joined by a don who is conscientious in his "ice-breaking" duties. All goes well until he poses this tickler. "Is there much debate in your school about the relative merits of Oxford over Cambridge?" Laura answers: "The head prefers Oxford. It's further away." "Ah," replies our companion, with renewed interest in his summer pudding.

Tea at 4pm is the last event of the day. "Can we not make this too long, " says Katie, anxious to return in time for a swim. But the appearance of Gary, a 21-year-old Selwyn engineering student, puts pay to any chance of an early return to Bishop's Stortford. The smooth-talking, good-looking undergraduate soon has the girls' attention. Cambridge a la Gary sounds good. His is the alternative prospectus: the beer, the nightlife, the fun. "Cool," says Laura.

I prize them away and speed south down the M11. There is still the small matter of getting in to a five-star university. "Talk of essays and interviews tomorrow," I think. "I'll let them dream on for today."

Stephen McConnell is a teacher at The Bishop's Stortford High School, Herts

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