An announcement that the University of Oxford is spending money and resources on two new programmes (called Opportunity Oxford and Foundation Oxford) to increase the proportion of disadvantaged students getting places there might be greeted with a world-weary shrug. Such things have been said before and the statistics remain resolutely dispiriting. Today’s news is, however, something we should take more seriously – the innovations announced this morning might just transform not just the statistics but the conversation.
Succeeding at Oxford requires more than “just” a hatful of excellent A-level grades. This much has long been acknowledged and is, in fact, the main justification for the expense and trouble the university goes to in its selection process, with entrance exams and interviews. As well as knowledge – from the syllabus and beyond – students need to have communication and study skills, intellectual confidence, the ability to interrogate a line of academic thought, and an approach to scholarship that embraces learning and prizes understanding.
These are all traits that can, and should, be developed through the teenage years at school and at home, and thus, inevitably, they are traits that are distributed unequally and in a way that correlates with financial and educational advantage. That Oxford has decided to invest in an intervention programme for students with ability and potential who have not had the same opportunity to develop these skills is, therefore, hugely good news.
It is nonsense to assert that the school and home are irrelevant when it comes to preparation to apply for and to attend university, and so it makes sense for Oxford to identify those who need an academic boost and to provide it. This is something that primary and secondary schools both know well; at every stage in academic study the institution must strengthen and level out foundations as well as build on them.
Getting poorer students into Oxbridge
It will be interesting to see what content goes into the two weeks of preparation provided by Opportunity Oxford and what staff are selected to deliver it (I hope to see experienced school teachers joining forces with university academics). I would expect some consolidation of A-level knowledge (it is, after all, possible to achieve even an A* without getting 100 per cent) and extension beyond and around the syllabus, alongside coaching for, and experience of, the one-to-one challenge of a tutorial situation. Some students will also need to be shown the value of an academic library, including, possibly, the advantages of somewhere silent and focused to get on with study.
Foundation Oxford, meanwhile, is a year-long course for those who have had significant disruption to their learning. Any idea that this is patronising to eligible students underestimates the disadvantage of being disadvantaged. Many very able and motivated students have their studies hampered by circumstances beyond their control and it is very easy for this impediment, over time, to add up to the equivalent of a year of schooling – the scheme which has been running at Lady Margaret Hall has clearly been successful and it is very positive to see it being extended.
There is more that Oxford (and Cambridge, which has similar access issues and is also institutionally focused on addressing them) can do. Academic intervention is not something that works best as a one-off boost and it would be more effective if it extended into the undergraduate course (maybe with a week before the second and third term of the first year as well as the original fortnight); many academics, but not all, understand the level of challenge facing some of their applicants and greater exposure to these backgrounds would lead to greater empathy and more willingness to make allowances and to offer support; but, most of all, there is more that can be done in schools to prepare for highly challenging academic study, not just at Oxford, but at any of Britain’s elite universities.
Oxford cannot solve the problems of sixth-form study and should not be held accountable for doing so, but there is more that can be done to reach into schools (especially in parts of the country where progression to university is less common) and to offer expertise in Oxford’s areas of specialism: high-level subject knowledge and an inexhaustible thirst for cleverness. A collaboration between the university and schools to put an Oxford graduate into every struggling seaside town with a brief to develop highly demanding scholarship would be a worthwhile investment.
Professor Louise Richardson describes today’s news as extraordinarily exciting and as a "sea change" in Oxford admissions. She is right – in the past, the university has been too willing to point out the rigour and justice of its selection system and to wring its hands at statistics that show that disadvantaged young people are less likely to make the cut. This innovation is different from what has gone before in both scale and style and is exactly the right step to make.
James Handscombe is headteacher of Harris Westminster Sixth Form