Pupils applying to the University of Oxford from low-performing schools or disadvantaged homes are “more likely” to be given entrance interviews than their more advantaged peers, the university’s head of admissions has told TESS.
Samina Khan also used her first full-length interview since taking up her job in 2014 to advise schools to prepare talented pupils for Oxbridge entrance from the age of 11. She argued that today’s “Hogwarts generation” was excited by the University of Oxford’s traditions, not put off by them.
Dr Khan, who had a state-school education in Leicester, explained how Oxford used “contextual data” about potential students “to help us to understand academic potential”. This data included exam results, the wider performance of a pupil’s school and their socio-economic background.
Asked if a pupil predicted top grades was more likely to get an interview at Oxford if they came from a disadvantaged home or low-performing school, she said: “You are more likely to be looked at and shortlisted for an interview. All those indicators are giving us information about your academic journey in a particular context.”
Oxford accepts applications from Scottish students with a combination of Highers and Advanced Highers and usually expects Higher grades of AAAAA or AAAAB, supplemented by two or more Advanced Highers.
Although Oxford refuses to lower grades for certain students to take disadvantage into account, the use of “contextual data” could be a considerable leg-up for some, given that there were 17,000 applications for 3,200 undergraduate places in 2014.
Last month, the latest report from the government-appointed Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission criticised the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge for recruiting a “disproportionate number of students from private schools”.
While the proportion of state-educated students at Oxford is creeping up slowly, it was still only at 56.3 per cent in 2014 (see box, below), and the proportion from deprived backgrounds was far lower. This year’s batch of applicants were told on Wednesday if they had been accepted – and the figures were not expected to be dramatically different.
Dr Khan (pictured, inset) was clear about her university’s expectations. For example, to be accepted to study French, candidates must be able to show they could work “way out” of the basic syllabus, she said – such as being able to comment on translations of poetry at interview.
She stressed that, in all circumstances, schools could take action to nurture successful Oxbridge candidates, but they must start early – from the beginning of secondary: “I would say with some of the schools we visit, it very much falls upon the head of sixth form and I think they are then perhaps realising, in terms of Oxford and selective universities, it needs to have happened further down.
“I’m a governor at a school and one of the things I’m trying to encourage there is to say, for the talented cohort, let’s start [at age 11]. Let’s start raising aspiration…let’s start showing them what they will need to have achieved.”
She advised schools to set up “super-curricular clubs” based around different subjects such as history and English, allowing them to nurture pupils’ talent.
“Encourage them to read widely. If they are interested in history, go on visits that inspire them,” Dr Khan added. “Get them to start to articulate their thoughts, to talk about their subject. The more they can think on their feet…that needs to happen earlier and not just a couple of weeks before the interview is due. It drives the passion for the subject and that’s really what we are looking for.”
Schools that lacked the time and resources to nurture a small group of potential applicants should turn to Oxford itself, she said. Its free UNIQ summer schools targeted pupils from disadvantaged areas, giving them an intensive experience of life in an Oxford college.
Dr Khan acknowledged that although progress had been made in widening access to Oxford, there was still a long way to go to attract applicants from areas and schools with historically low participation.
“Where we would like to go to next is to have more long-term, sustained contacts with the teaching profession and also to reach out to schools and teachers who are currently not engaging with us; those who are thinking Oxford is not for them, not right for their students,” she said.
But critics have argued that these efforts will all be in vain, because it is the “poshness” of Oxford that is ultimately putting off people from low-participation areas.
Dr Khan disagrees. She has asked state-school pupils thinking of applying to Oxford how they feel about the dining halls, arcane terminology and subfusc gowns. “They are really excited about it,” she said. “The grand dining halls, you’ve probably heard them compared to Hogwarts. This is a generation that’s grown up with Harry Potter. They are probably far more familiar with it than we give them credit for.
“They recognise the benefits of that small college community, the grand tables, talking about current affairs – that’s what we want them to embrace and take ownership of.”
For more information for teachers on Oxford applications go to bit.ly/OxResources