Four set off to cross Oxbridge rubicon

In Brent, one of London's least leafy boroughs, girls are setting their sights on Oxbridge glory.

A third of the 1,000 girls at the Convent of Jesus and Mary school - a Roman Catholic comprehensive - qualify for free school meals.

In living memory only two pupils from the school have got into Oxbridge. However the statistic does not daunt head of humanities Jim Colley who wants more local girls to follow their example.

"Two years ago a girl called Sabrina Doyle won a place at Newnham College, Cambridge, doing French and Italian," says Mr Colley.

"The problem is that many state schools, particularly in inner cities, don't provide the extra-curricular things Oxbridge candidates need. We can get candidates with three As, but they often have very little experience of formal talking and tend not to do as well in interview as chinless wonders."

Mr Colley coaches sixth-formers considered to be Oxbridge material. This has involved the creation of a school film club, trips to theatres, and practice interviews conducted by visiting academics.

In 1995 two pupils applied, and only Sabrina was successful. The following year four applied, one was given a conditional offer but opted to go to Leeds University instead.

This year there are four Oxbridge entrants. Mr Colley has high hopes, but is not leaving it to chance: he made them rewrite the personal statements on their Universities and Colleges Admissions Service forms up to 10 times.

"My mum's putting money aside into an account," says Jacqueline Perez, one of the hopefuls. "She says if I don't go to Oxford she's going on a world cruise."

Mr Colley says that other inner-city schools should aim to forge personal contacts with sympathetic colleges. "But the first problem is to establish the belief that it's possible," he says. "If you do, it's going to happen."

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