Disadvantaged pupils are being deterred from applying to the University of Cambridge by teachers who tell them that the university is not for the likes of them, according to the first female head of St John’s College, Cambridge.
Heather Hancock, who will take over as Master of St John’s in October next year, says that some teachers are discouraging pupils from aiming high, in order to save them from disappointment.
“I'm sure it's because they are trying not to let people have a setback or be disappointed," she said.
She called on the university’s admissions tutors to do more outreach work with teachers, who “are really influential, and who might very easily put somebody off from thinking university is for them, never mind that Cambridge is for them.”
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Ms Hancock, who was the first member of her family to go to university, said in an interview with The Telegraph: “It’s more than just the student themselves you are trying to target.
“It’s also the people that influence them, and overcoming some of their conceptions and misconceptions, and getting them to the college if you possibly can – showing them that it’s a place where a young person can thrive.”
She added that, at the moment, colleges simply tell schools and students: “We would love to have you apply.”
This, however, is misinterpreted as: “That’s not for you. That’s not for the likes of you,” she said. “And we’ve got to stop that voice in their ear.”
For students from backgrounds such as hers, Ms Hancock said, applying to Cambridge can be a “daunting prospect”, unless they are surrounded by people telling them that they can succeed.
"People need to find their strengths and accept a challenge,” she said. “It's really important that everybody refreshes their understanding and gets up to speed with the realities."
Ms Hancock, who is currently the chair of the Food Standards Agency, read Land Economy at St John's in the 1980s. She was the first student at her Northern comprehensive to take up a place at Oxbridge.
She said her headteacher at Park High School, in Colne, Lancashire, had been the person who had suggested that she should apply to Oxbridge.