'How we break down the barriers to Oxbridge entry'

One group of schools explains how it is giving its pupils support like private schools to tackle Oxbridge applications

Oxbridge david and goliath

Students from disadvantaged backgrounds seeking entry into the country’s best universities often feel like David facing Goliath, but without being armed with a sling.

As head of Year 12 at Ark Walworth Academy, in a part of south London where few families have the means to even consider private school, I see evidence of this every day; many of my students feel discouraged from even applying to Oxford, Cambridge and other top universities. What’s the point of confronting Goliath if you think you don’t stand any chance of succeeding?

The numbers do nothing to contradict this point of view. The Sutton Trust has found that Oxbridge recruits more students from the top eight private schools in the country than from 3,000 state schools combined. Is it possible that the vast majority of the country’s brainpower resides only in a few elite institutions, or might it be the case that those private schools have the experience, and have created the infrastructure and support systems, that enable their students to get in?

Are they Goliaths only because they are armed with the right tools and preparation?

Short of asking Oxbridge to change their entry requirements, is there anything that we, the Davids from 3,000 state schools, can do to level the playing field? In other words, how do we make sure every David has a sling and a stone?

Understanding the process

For the past six months, I have been working with other sixth-form leaders from throughout Ark’s network of schools to design an Oxbridge admissions programme. Collaborating with admissions tutors, access officers and subject leads, we have been working to provide our own students with everything they need to crack the admissions code to get into these universities.

We are grateful also to have support from St Paul’s School in west London – an independent school with experience of getting its students into Oxbridge.  

The programme is showing our students that admissions are about more than just grades. It’s important to establish links.

Both Oxford and Cambridge have colleges linked to specific regions in the UK and they are very amenable to helping out. They encourage and help schools to organise university visits, subject lectures or overnight stays, enabling students to familiarise themselves with an environment that, to many of them, would otherwise feel like a Harry Potter film set. Something I find particularly helpful when organising these kinds of “access events” is to directly contact the university’s subject departments. This can lead to departmental visits, professorial visits or undergraduate mentoring opportunities.

Understanding the admissions processes also help us to identify strategic opportunities. Statistics show that, for admissions, some niche courses, such as land economy (Cambridge) and history of art (Oxford), offer slightly better outcomes than applying for medicine or English. Clearly, you have to be careful that you’re not asking some Year 13 student to give up their life’s dream and replace it with an unrelated programme, but often seeking a related but less competitive course can greatly increase your chance of admission.

One of our students, passionate about science, was pleased to discover that it was wiser to apply for a physics spot at Oxford, with a success rate of 55 per cent, than a natural science place at Cambridge (26 per cent).

Which leads to another point: A-level course options. We’d love to be able to provide courses in Latin and ancient history here at Ark Walworth, which are desirable prerequisites for some Oxbridge colleges, but it would be prohibitively expensive for us to offer sixth-form courses that would only be taken up by very few students. Yet, there’s nothing to stop us from connecting and partnering with another school that does offer these subjects.

Even if the result is only a termly lecture, this might prove enough to motivate a student considering Oxbridge to take this further. As one undergrad from a "bog-standard state school" (his words) currently studying classics at Cambridge explained to me, his school connected him with a Latin professor who helped convince him to pursue classes he would otherwise never have been exposed to.

Test practice

Aside from all of this preparation, there’s no escaping the most obvious and possibly most important aspects of preparing students for Oxbridge: admission tests and interviews.

Different admission tests are required for all but a few courses and success in these exams will determine the likelihood of a student landing an interview. For example, students need to secure about 63 per cent on the BMAT to be considered for medicine. Simply put, this three-part test is hard. But the good news is that past test papers are available online for revision. Oxford’s can be found here and Cambridge’s here. Even if a student is unsure of which course they want to pursue, they can get started by practising for Oxford’s Thinking Skills Assessment, which is used across subjects.

Preparing for interviews is a huge project in and of itself, but we’re mindful to tell students that, for the most part, the university is just looking to get to know them as students and understand how they think. The best preparation is through creating regular, informal opportunities for your students to practise telling their stories and learn to be comfortable when speaking to academics/ teachers or professionals. Confidence is key.

We also get in touch with Oxbridge students and student groups, who sometimes are able to offer mentoring and advice. Instagram, Facebook and other social media can be used to make connections, and we’ve used these tools to connect to the Oxford University Islamic Society and the Cambridge University African Caribbean Society – both of which were really helpful.

While all of the interventions listed above are aimed specifically at motivating, empowering and preparing students, I think it is also vital to get parents and the wider community involved. I was surprised by the level of scepticism I discovered in some parents when we discussed the prospect of applying to Oxbridge. Some of this probably came from worries about children moving too far from home. But the more we engaged with parents and discussed the kinds of opportunities an Oxbridge education would make available for their children, the more you could sense attitudes changing.

We’ve even been trying to organise Oxbridge trips just for the parents so they can see the universities for themselves.

So far, our programme has had some modest success. Of six potential Oxbridge hopefuls at Ark Walworth, three have earned interviews and one was given an offer to Cambridge. All six of the students, though, told me that they were happy to have tried – a victory in and of itself. In this community, every David counts and holds the potential to inspire others.

We think our Oxbridge programme has helped even the odds a little, and we’ll be looking to expand next year and the year beyond. Goliath had better watch his back.  

Clementine Wade is head of Year 12 at Ark Walworth Academy. Project Oxbridge is an initiative in which 40 students from Ark sixth forms have been chosen to take part in an 18-month programme that will prepare them to make competitive applications to Oxford and Cambridge

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