Oxford is sending the message: you don't have to be posh

16th June 2006 at 01:00
Forget Brat Camp - this was Bright Camp. Each spring, Oxford University throws open its doors in its annual access shadowing scheme, and last year, I was one of those taking part.

The Oxford access scheme tries to encourage sixth-formers from state schools, especially those in inner cities, to apply. One of its main objectives is to dispel the myth that Oxford is still an elitist institution, peopled by the cast of Brideshead Revisited. Its various projects include school visits, summer schools and open days, as well as the shadowing programme.

I attended while in Year 12, after I found information about the scheme on the Oxford University website. The scheme has its own website - www.oxford-access.org.uk - which even contains application forms pupils can download. The forms have to be counter-signed by your school, but otherwise it's quite straightforward. Last year just over 50 pupils took part, in two shadowing sessions. As shadows, the idea was that we pupils attached ourselves to a student for three or four days, to get an idea of what it's like to be at Oxford, and whether it's for us. We attended lectures and tutorials, staying in college and eating college food, mixing with students - and, for some of us, playing pool in the college bar.

The scheme's been running since 1991. Its mission statement says it "is a student-led organisation which aims to encourage students from inner-city backgrounds, especially from minority ethnic communities, to enter into higher education in general, and the University of Oxford in particular".

It might be popular with pupils, but it isn't without its internal critics, as a report in Cherwell, the Oxford students' newspaper, demonstrated on the week I was there. It recounted the fate of one unreconstructed toff who, having drunk well over lunch, stumbled upon a group of access students looking around his ancient and illustrious college. To their bemusement he proceeded to recite a list of British Prime Ministers who had been members of that establishment, before declaiming "Access Denied, Access Denied."

His college punished the poor chap, after an official complaint.

So, sure, there are chinless wonders out there who still believe there's a direct correlation between their IQ and the thickness of their daddy's wallet, but most of the students were friendly and welcoming, and many went out of their way to help us.

There were about 30 pupils on the course I attended, more girls than boys, but you couldn't generalise more than that. We had Year 12s originally from Sudan, Nigeria, Ukraine, Albania, Italy and, in my case, Leeds.

For many of us it was an eye-opening three days; the academic side was matched by social activities, including ice skating, "speed-dating" and a quiz night. I stayed at New College (founded 1379), and felt as though I was living on a film set after the plate glass and concrete of my comprehensive. The thinking behind the dish of free condoms in the corridor outside my room remains a mystery. There were college tours, sessions on how to improve your Ucas form, a question-and-answer meeting with an admission tutor from Queen's College. Sadly, he wasn't a tutor for biological sciences, the subject that I now hope to read, or my question (on the basis that if you don't ask, you don't get) would have been "Can I come to Queen's, please?" Everyone was expected to keep a diary, and to research and carry out a team presentation on role models. I worked alongside a youth who blithely told me he was going to be prime minister one day. This prompted a lot of eye-rolling on my part, but despite the bad start, we discovered that we had a lot in common.

The scheme's work doesn't end on the last day of the shadowing. Pupils are pressed to stay in touch and ask for advice. They're also told to spread the word. Just because pupils don't have parents who can afford to educate them at one of the "top" schools, it doesn't mean they can't set their sights higher than what Private Eye used to call "the University of the Ring Road (formerly World of Leather)".

Next time you see a survey which shows that Oxford discriminates against state schools, it's worth recalling the work of dozens of people - including current students - who are trying to prove the opposite. If you know a bright and determined teenager, there's no reason why they can't break down the imagined barriers.

Coralie Young

Coralie Young is a Year 13 pupil at Benton Park comprehensive in Leeds

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