Devastated by rejection of our brightest pupil

27th January 2006 at 00:00
Sarah is the brightest pupil in our school. She achieved nine A* GCSEs at the end of Year 11. At the end of Y12 she achieved four As at AS-level plus a B in Spanish. She is predicted to achieve three As in her A-levels this summer.

Sarah is a brilliant musician, an incredibly hard-working student and has the sort of personality which lights up a room. Her law teacher says she has "a brilliant legal mind". She has a huge appetite for learning and huge potential.

Sarah is from a loving single-parent family that has no history of further or higher education. She is a student in our urban comprehensive, described by the Department for Education and Skills as "a school in challenging circumstances". We are a typical comprehensive, on the edge of a massive city with all the challenges so familiar to many teachers. We desperately need role-models like Sarah.

We are a tremendously dedicated and determined staff, led by an inspirational headteacher, who all have a passion and a belief in our pupils.

Two weeks ago, Sarah received a rejection from Cambridge university to study law. She had taken immense care with her application, attended Cambridge university preparatory days, for which we paid pound;175 per day.* We had even sought the advice of a colleague in a local independent school to check whether we had missed anything in her reference or application because we in the sixth-form team had so little experience of Oxbridge applications.

We are devastated and angry about this decision. Sarah would have been the first student from our school for many years to be offered a place at Cambridge.

In short, our school cannot do any better than produce a diamond like Sarah. She is a shining star and it would have been such a huge boost for our hard-working pupils and staff if she had been offered a place. To see her rejected from Cambridge is a body blow to everyone who works in tough, challenging comprehensive schools like ours.

It is not enough for this university to argue that more students are accepted at Cambridge from the state sector than the independent sector. As we all know, there are a huge range of state schools. Selective grammar schools and academies where parents and pupils are interviewed (simply to identify aptitude, of course) before being offered a place are very different from our catholic, welcoming, non-selective, inclusive comprehensive.

Sarah is very philosophical and mature about this decision. She has already been offered a place to study law at Durham university, where she will no doubt thrive and go on to a glittering career and a wonderful future. She has handled this issue with immense maturity and her usual grace and sense of humour.

Could someone at Cambridge university please explain to me what a school like ours has to do to get one of our students through its hallowed portals? Just exactly how many pupils from schools "in challenging circumstances" are actually successful in their applications to Cambridge? We would like to know because when the next Sarah comes along, we would like to be able to help them to break through this "glass ceiling".

Perhaps when the next Sarah comes along, instead of building up hopes, we will advise them not to apply to Cambridge because we are simply baffled by the mysteries of their admissions policy.

Chris Conway is the head of sixth form and assistant headteacher at a large comprehensive in the West Midlands* The university has asked to point out that this is a course provided by a commercial organisation. The university provides similar advice and information free of charge

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