The following piece is given as it appeared in The Keble Review (2014).
In October 2012, Oxford received over 17,000 undergraduate applications, and subsequently made more than 3,000 offers for entry. Of the offers made to UK residents, 43.2% went to pupils at independent schools—a sector that educates just 7% of the UK school population but accounted for 37.2% of all applications to Oxford that year. Meanwhile, 35% of applications from state schools were for the University’s five most oversubscribed subjects, and just 13% for the five least popular (stats here). Not enough state school pupils are applying to Oxford, and those that are might not be making the most of their application.
Recognizing this, the University as a whole has committed ‘to help bright students make competitive applications, regardless of background’, and as part of this commitment each of the colleges is paired with a geographical region of the UK upon which to focus their own outreach initiatives. For Keble, this is Birmingham, Coventry, and their surrounding areas. That’s why, for the past nine months, I’ve been travelling up to Bishop Challoner Catholic College in King’s Heath. The school is one of a number in the Midlands to have been involved in the pilot year of Keble’s Tutorial Enrichment Project. The project sends early career academics and DPhil students (like myself) into state schools within our region to hold humanities and science tutorials with gifted students during their first year of A-levels. Rather than a fleeting visit to give talks, answer questions and deliver prospectuses, the project aims at a longer-term investment in the pupils’ road to higher education. By working with pupils to foster their academic interests, and with individual schools over time, it hopes to encourage more Oxford applications from the brightest pupils in the region.
At Bishop Challoner I’ve been working with a group of four pupils all hoping to study either the humanities or social sciences at university, though without any firm ideas of a particular university, or even a specific course. At the end of our first tutorial (a whistle-stop tour of reading lists and essay writing followed by a discussion of extracts from Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner) I asked for their interests: history, English, French, politics. Faced with such breadth it was challenging to pick subjects for discussion, and to keep all pupils engaged in each session—particularly on areas they knew little about. Across the remaining tutorials we looked at topics as disparate as ‘the Western Canon’ and early modern witchcraft, following the recognizable Oxbridge undergraduate pattern: reading list, essay submission, discussion. Though the group began quietly each week, with prodding and goading each debate was lively, and overran our time.
In July, the pupils visited the Oxford Open Day with a larger group of their classmates. After attending subject talks and different colleges, they came for a tutorial in Keble, including what to expect in the subject aptitude tests and a mock interviews. In the final tutorial, later this month, I will be helping to finalize personal statements—undoubtedly excising exclamation marks and the many synonyms of ‘passionate’. Whether any will apply to Oxford, I’m not sure; but should they decide to have a go—which I certainly hope some do—the Keble Enrichment Project has undoubtedly allayed some of their fears.