Croquet, one-on-one tutorials and punting are all part of “the Oxford experience”, and a group of pupils from six Scottish schools is set to get a taste of them when they spend next week living and studying at the university.
A dozen pupils from East Lothian Council’s six secondary schools head to the University of Oxford’s Exeter College on Sunday. Over the days that follow they will take part in seminars, tutorials and departmental visits, and ultimately produce an essay and a presentation on a question posed by an expert tutor, who they will work with individually or in pairs.
Background: New schemes to get poorer students into Oxford
Alongside learning opportunities, a series of social activities have been planned including a visit to the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, punting on the Cherwell and croquet in the Fellows’ Garden of Exeter.
The visit – which, when it's repeated next year is expected to involve twice the number of East Lothian pupils – came about after pupil focus groups in authority's schools revealed that those destined for higher education wanted more information about what courses they could pursue and where.
The focus in Scotland in recent years has been on the roughly 50 per cent of pupils who will not go on to university, after the final report of the Commission for Developing Scotland’s Young Workforce warned in 2014 that “we are simply not preparing or equipping these young people for the world of work”.
However, the discussions in East Lothian revealed that pupils destined for university wanted schools to give them more information about their options, including getting the chance to experience courses before committing.
For its part, the University of Oxford – which launched two new schemes for disadvantaged pupils earlier this year – has said it wants to attract more state school pupils.
A study published last year by the Sutton Trust social mobility charity found eight "top schools" sent more pupils to Oxbridge over three years than another 2,894 schools in England.
The research also found that independent school pupils were seven times more likely to go to Oxford and Cambridge.
'A real hunger'
Neil Craik-Collins, a depute headteacher at Ross High in Tranent, who is currently seconded to East Lothian Council, said: “The feedback from our highest performing pupils was that there were all these courses and pathways for college or for the trades but they wanted to know what we were negotiating for them."
Now the council is looking to develop taster courses in the likes of veterinary medicine and law in conjunction with local universities and the University of Oxford immersion is part of the developing suite of options for the authority’s most academic pupils.
Mr Craik-Collins added: “We wanted to give them a real taster of what it was like to study at Oxford and give them that aspiration and make them think about going. University in Scotland is free so there has to be a real hunger if they are going to look outside their own country.”
The project evolved with the help of Andrew Small, a doctoral student from East Lothian who is currently studying at Exeter College.
Mr Small went to primary school in East Lothian and private school in Edinburgh where he said he was encouraged to be ambitious and set “very high targets”. State school pupils should also be encouraged to set their sights on lofty goals, he argued – something which he hoped this experience would encourage East Lothian pupils to do.
The teaching at Oxford is considered unique because it focuses on expert tutors working with just one or two students. The East Lothian pupils – who have all been sent a reading list – will engage with science, English, history and theology tutors exploring questions such as “Can we link extreme weather events to climate change?” and “Why have historians found Julius Caesar's Gallic War so interesting?”
At the end of the week, they will produce an essay and give a presentation.
“The point of this project is to be immersive,” said Mr Small. “It’s about experiencing the teaching that goes on here, the resources people have access to and the way people are stretched intellectually.”
Just now, students at the University of Oxford are sitting their exams and have to wear "subfusc", which for male students generally means wearing a dark suit and bowtie, and for female students a white blouse and black ribbon, underneath the appropriate gown.
Mr Small added: “From outside, these rules can see quite alienating but when you are here they become reassuring and unifying. So the fact that we wear the same uniform for exams gives the feeling of group support. This experience should give the pupils a chance to see that.”