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Oxford dons woo teachers

Oxbridge colleges are reaching out to pupils from the state sector. Biddy Passmore and Dorothy Lepkowska report

"IT'S LIKE an interrogation!" The remark burst out of one teacher, appalled at the thought that any of his pupils should have to submit to a rigorous quizzing on an unfamiliar poem as part of a university interview.

Twenty English teachers from state schools were sitting in a basement room at Exeter College, Oxford. John Carey, FRSL, Merton Professor of English Literature, noted critic, and authority on Milton, Donne and much else, had been taking them through a poem presented to last year's applicants for English at Merton College.

For all his titles and distinctions, Professor Carey is not a frightening man. He talks in plain English. He has an informal, unpatronising manner. He wanted to give the teachers an idea of what Oxford was looking for - and to find out if they thought there was a better way of discovering it.

This kind of two-way exchange is central to the whole idea of the in-service week for teachers pioneered at Oxford University last week. Fifty-five teachers of English, physics and geography from the state sector spent the week on a combination of seminars in their subject, private study and meetings with admissions tutors. They lived in colleges and went on excursions: to the theatre in London for the English teachers and to North Oxfordshire for the geographers, while the physicists explored Oxford's Rutherford Laboratory.

The Pounds 28,000 cost was met by the millionaire Peter Lampl through his Sutton Trust.

Both Oxford and Cambridge universities are keen to attract more applicants from the state sector, to rid themselves of the privileged, champagne-drinking image that still persists in the minds of many pupils and - perhaps more importantly - many teachers.

Oxford knows that it has an even steeper hill to climb in this respect than Cambridge. While just over half of the home students admitted to Cambridge last year were from the state sector, the proportion is still below half at Oxford and has declined since 1990, although it looks likely to rise this year.

Oxford is especially worried about English where applications from both state and independent schools have dropped by more than a quarter during the 1990s. There are now only about three applications per place. (At Cambridge, applications for English have risen by 16 per cent.) Hence the interest in interviewing techniques, although it may be, as several teachers suggested, that the off-putting factor is a syllabus that still contains compulsory Beowulf. "Linguistic analysis, film studies, American women writers, post-colonial literature: a programme around a core - students like institutions that offer that kind of flexibility," said one of the teachers. It may be some time before they find that sort of thing at Oxford.

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