Just a few years ago, Oxford and Cambridge's reputation as the posh people's universities was enough to deter even the most able state-educated pupils. But, reports Hilary Wilce, the barriers are coming down - fast
For the first time ever, Oxford University this year offered more places to state school pupils than to public school ones, prompting cries of "unfair" from independent school heads and sad tales of gilded youths being pipped at the post by grammar school candidates. But things can only get worse for the traditionalists. Because - never mind the grammar schools - more and more comprehensives are finding the Oxbridge playing field flatter than they thought.
"Have no fear," says Stephen Williamson, head of sixth form at the 1,300-strong Whitley Bay high school, a Tyne and Wear comprehensive which this year has five pupils with Oxbridge offers. Eighteen months ago, before he took up his current job, he was an Oxbridge novice, but now he says:
"The important thing is to take the time to find out a bit about it, then have a go. What they are looking for is an interesting mind, not someone who's skilled, drilled and coached."
In the past, such advice may have been tricky to follow - the institutions seemed arcane and mysterious. Today it couldn't be easier. College and university websites - official and otherwise - are a mine of information, while both universities are so keen to widen access that they will deluge even the most casual enquirer with details of open days, summer schools, visiting speakers and partnership schemes.
"We're determined and eager to admit the most able students," says Professor Peter Goddard, master of St John's College, Cambridge. He is a father of two comprehensive-educated children, one of whom went on to Oxford. His college has a link with schools in Lambeth, south London, and works with children from Year 9 upwards to encourage them to aim for the top. Other colleges send out student speakers, mount roadshows, and even go cold-calling.
A student at Robert Clack school, a 1,700-pupil comprehensive in Barking, has this year been offered a place to read natural sciences, following an approach by Queen's College, Cambridge, two years ago. "They wanted to demystify the process, and we've been very happy with the relationship," says head Paul Grant, who, in the spirit of even-handedness, has responded to a similar invitation to visit Oxford. "We believe in striving for excellence in everything, and there can be a spin-off for everyone in terms of inspiration and motivation, and getting students to focus on their studies."
Wootton upper school, a rural Bedfordshire comprehensive of 1,300, has made diligent use of outreach schemes and has reaped rewards in the shape of five Oxbridge offers last year, and four this. Students have attended college open days and summer schools, teachers have gone on Inset courses, one pupil has shadowed a Cambridge undergraduate, and the school has joined others to organise an information evening with speakers from the universities.
Wootton's Oxbridge co-ordinator, Debbie Horsman, spent three days helping Queen's College, Cambridge, interview students as part of a scheme to involve teachers in the process. "Interviewers want to know if the candidate can make a go of it, can follow a line of reasoning. So if you realise halfway through an argument that you're going wrong, stop and say so."
Developing confidence is one area in which public schools have traditionally won hands down over state schools, but maintained schools are fast discovering there is no secret to this, and that a little extra help and encouragement go a long way. "We don't give pupils extra tuition, but we do make them feel capable of getting a place," says Ian Melvin, head of the Thomas Hardye school, Dorchester, a 1,700-strong school with long experience of sending pupils to Oxbridge, including seven last year. He says helping high-flie achieve their potential is part of the comprehensive culture. The school offers confidence-building and interview sessions, and makes sure applicants' personal statements are well put together, "although the real benefit comes from having students from the school already there".
Even so, Mr Melvin knows the system can be idiosyncratic, and that there are no guarantees of success. "You do get some strange interviews - we've known of a modern languages applicant who wasn't asked to speak a word of a modern language, and a youngster who was asked if he wanted a brandy. We've given up trying to second-guess the process."
Inevitably, though, any school with an Oxbridge track record gets drawn into what one head calls "a bit of a golden circle". Which means, says John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, "the head can pick up the phone and say, 'You know that person of ours who did so well with you? Well, we've another one who we think is even better'."
His former school, the 1,500-strong Durham Johnston comprehensive, in Durham, has long been known for academic results and Oxbridge successes, but current head Richard Bloodworth says expectations probably matter more than anything else. "If you are a student who sees that your teachers and parents think you've got that sort of ability, it is very powerful."
But like other heads, he points out that neither the school nor the pupils any longer consider Oxford and Cambridge the only peaks of excellence. Many of his high-fliers prefer Bristol, Durham, Nottingham and London. Mike Wilde, head of Cockermouth school, a rural comprehensive in Cumbria, says his school makes no special efforts to promote the idea of Oxbridge. "But they are unique, so we give our students the chance to visit, and that's often the turning point - when they decide to go for it, or that maybe it's not for them."
His 1,200-strong school has had between one and six students go to Oxbridge each year for the past three or four years, and its main battle is not fear of prejudice, but its isolated geography. "Our children think Manchester is a long way to go, let alone anywhere else. We have to encourage them to shift their thinking."
One way Cockermouth does this is to invite former pupils at Oxbridge back to the school to impart "a real sense of the thrill of their experience". It also supports potential high-fliers, identifying them at the start of the sixth form, then giving them an outline of their options, taking them to visit an Oxford and a Cambridge college - in the same way it takes students to see other universities - and giving candidates coaching and interview practice. Peter French, head of sixth form, has found colleges willing and helpful. "There has been a change in the attitude of admission tutors in the past few years," he says.
Stuart Bridge, admissions tutor of Queen's College, Cambridge, agrees. "One problem is that the number of Oxford and Cambridge graduates going into teaching has dropped dramatically, so there hasn't been a carry-over into schools of the idea of going there. Some schools do have negative ideas about us, and we're willing to do all we can to break those down."
David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, says: "Oxford and Cambridge have moved a great deal in the past few years. It's difficult to see what else they can do. Maybe the ball now lies in the court of the state schools, which have to find the confidence to put forward candidates."
Both universities run schemes to encourage applicants from outside the independent sector. The Oxford Access scheme: www.oxford-access.org Tel: 01865 270207 Cambridge Special Access: www.cam.ac.ukTel: 01223 333308
Breaking down the walls
* Create a school culture in which students believe in themselves.
* Get informed. Read college websites. Contact the universities. Pick up the ph