We're reading more and more that the onus of getting students from non-Oxbridge backgrounds to apply to the country's two oldest universities is shifting from the universities' access teams, to the teachers with the power to motivate their brightest students.
I went to Oxford from a state school, arguably a very nice sixth form college in Surrey, but one that didn't have a strong record of sending students to Oxford or Cambridge. Was I dissuaded from applying? Not really. Was I encouraged? Not particularly. Did this make applying hard work? Absolutely.
Every school seems to approach Oxbridge applications differently - some teachers pick out which students they think should be applying two or even three years in advance and invite them to join lunchtime or afterschool Oxbridge classes. Others take a more open approach and invite all their students to an Oxbridge talk - and then encourage anyone willing to apply. My school did the Oxbridge talk, but then consulted my teachers to see whether I was 'Oxbridge material'. My school agreed to support my application and my teacher organised a quick mock interview at lunch time before I went up to Oxford for the real thing. Compared with the support that some of my Oxford friends - from both private and state schools - received, this wasn't a fantastic start.
My school was relatively successful in terms of Oxbridge places that year - although this probably had more to do with the students' own ambitions and their parents' motivation. But the lack of formal support is completely understandable: schools are overstretched - it wasn't because my teachers couldn't be bothered, it was because they had other demands to meet: from colleagues, parents, students, management and government. Many teachers have to focus their efforts on ensuring that as many students as possible are leaving education with good qualifications (5A* - Cs at GCSE and three passes at A level) rather than pushing the tops students to achieve more. And, if resources won't stretch to supporting the weakest, motivating the middle and stretching the strongest, which course of action do you choose? I'm sure that if I was struggling to attain a C at A level, I'd be rather baffled if my teacher abandoned me to discuss renaissance Italian poetry or complex string theory with another student who was heading for straight A*s and aiming for Oxbridge.
The Oxbridge applications process also presents a challenge to teachers. Every year something about the admissions process changes, from new courses and admissions tests to updated registration dates and additional stages in the application process. Oxford and Cambridge's admissions processes are complex because the universities are aiming to give their applicants as many chances to shine as possible, to make the system fair for all and to provide a cutting-edge education that caters to what students - and businesses - are looking for. Many schools, however, don't have the capacity to research these new changes - let alone to prepare their students for them - and so some schools interpret the applications process as a message that Oxbridge is trying to wean out the weakest rather than to seek the brightest.
At the same time, Oxford and Cambridge have had to step up the stringency of their applications process to deal with the sheer numbers of bright students applying from the state and private sectors, as well as from abroad: no longer can bright young things expect a clutch of A grades and an interesting turn at interview to land them an offer (á la History boys). There are now many more hurdles on the way to Oxbridge success and they are higher. Sadly, however, many students don't ever find out whether they could clear them and go on to succeed.
The good news is that students from non-Oxbridge backgrounds can be successful in their applications - and when they are, they often go on to perform better when they get to university. There is already a lot of work being done to encourage students to apply to Oxford and Cambridge, and then to try to ensure that admissions reflect the state versus private percentages across applications. The universities have students and tutors going into schools up and down the country to demystify the applications process and make it clear what the universities are looking for. Charities, such as the Sutton Trust, have achieved tremendous success encouraging first generation university applicants to apply and then go on to study at top universities like Oxbridge, Imperial and Durham. What these access schemes now need to focus on is working with students and teachers together. Teachers play such an important part in the applications process. As well as encouraging students to apply, teachers are the role models who will be there for more than one year at a time to pass on information and advice to the next year of bright students. Access work needs to involve schools and teachers - and take into account not only the lack of confidence, information and motivation that exists, but also the lack of resources available to keep up with the system.
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