Making a difference

18th May 2012 at 01:00

The sense of dread I'm feeling can mean only one thing, it's ball season at university.

As a student involved in widening access, it's a time of year I approach with trepidation. For every hour we spend making our universities more inviting, for every attempt we make to raise pupils' aspirations, there is a tweed-clad cretin waiting to fart on our efforts.

At my university, this year's prize twat award is a hotly contested affair. The well-heeled buffoon who capped off a night of drink-driving by decapitating a pigeon with his bare hands had looked to be home and dry. Yet in a dramatic turn of events, his effort has been trumped by a late contender. Last week, our own Bullingdon-esque clique unveiled a VIP ticket to their May Ball. Now, any student looking to make an impression can arrive in style by way of (I kid you not) a helicopter. Somewhere, Sir Peter Lampl is silently weeping.

The problem is that although on campus these groups are taken about as seriously as David Cameron's partiality for pasties, in the eyes of our national media stories like this are presented as the ultimate distillation of our student experience.

The upshot? Any prospective student is as likely to read about pigeon-gate or the decadence of park 'n' ride helicopters as about our scholarships and summer schools. Unsurprisingly, this is generally off-putting to anyone who is not a card-carrying twerp him- or herself.

And once a particular perception gains traction in the news, anything that contradicts it tends to be overlooked. Cantankerous Old Carthusians are in - everything else is out. It's a deficit of A03 "alternative interpretations" that would make any English teacher squirm. It takes a truly momentous event to escape this sort of typecasting. Short of commissioning a huge commemorative sausage roll for its 600th anniversary, it's hard to know how our university can break the mould.

There is a sad irony here. Stories of helicopter rides and pigeon executioners can alienate students from applying to "traditional" universities. Yet within the student body these same villains often help us to find common ground. Hours after arriving at university, two things become clear to most students. The first? Tossers are a fact of life, whether they're throwing pick 'n' mix at you on the school bus or bedecked in claret trousers and bellowing at you across a pub. The second? Notwithstanding the odd pigeon-killer, the majority of students are decent, down-to-earth individuals, whether their pedigree is popped collars or pop tarts.

It is this discrepancy in perceptions that makes university summer schools and outreach so important. Alongside giving pupils a much-needed confidence boost, they allow students to dissect these media narratives for themselves: to get on the inside and discover that sense of "common citizenship" the Robbins Report first described in 1963.

This is where you, our teachers, hold the key. Having just dragged my younger brother kicking and screaming through the application process, I know that most 17-year-olds would rather colour-coordinate their socks than take on the extra homework summer-school applications involve. Yet, with services like Connexions decimated, our teachers taking the initiative has never been so important. There will always be those who threaten to give our classrooms, our schools, our universities a bad name. The odd rogue Etonian might make our task difficult. But for every tweed buffoon, there's a teacher who can make a world of difference.

Son of Thrope is a beer-swilling university student, and actual son of Ms Anne Thrope, a secondary school teacher. Ms Thrope is marking.

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