Outreach and Access Officer, Emily Cannon, reports on how they got on: “In the middle of July, two undergraduate students – Keshvi Radia (Mathematics) and Emma Flint (Medicine) – and I embarked on a tour of Luton’s state schools: the destination for Wadham’s week-long ‘roadshow’. The aim of the ‘roadshow’ was to visit as many of this link region’s state schools as possible in order to offer advice and guidance to students and teachers.
Luton has a significant proportion of students eligible for free school meals, a high percentage of students who speak English as a second language, and a low progression rate to Oxford (see 1 below), and is therefore a target area for our Access work. Because most schools in the region provide pre-16 education only, our audiences were mainly composed of Year 9s and Year 10s (13-15 year olds).We took the opportunity to speak more broadly about university, advising how school students can put themselves in the best position, should they wish to apply to university in the future. In the end, we spoke to 1000 students from nine of Luton’s state schools, along with a school in Central Bedfordshire.
Our talks began by addressing concerns and misconceptions. ‘You have to pay for university!’ was one of the first concerns we heard in each of the schools. This gave us the opportunity to explain how students manage to fund their studies through student loans, bursaries, scholarships and paid work over the vacation. Some students were worried that university was just a continuation of school so we explored the differences between school and university, providing information about the Russell Group and Oxford, and the importance of subject choice. Students were keen to understand what was involved in some of the subjects offered at Oxford, including Experimental Psychology, Classics, Oriental Studies, Theology, Earth Sciences and Computer Science.
Exploring the vast range of subjects available for study at university, Keshvi and Emma suggested Viking Studies, Harry Potter, Artificial Intelligence, Land Economy and Manchester United as possibilities – three of which are real courses at UK universities! The importance of carefully thinking through A Level choices in order to keep the door open to subjects that the students may be interested in studying at university level was stressed by the students.
Looking ahead to careers, the students focussed on the myth that students, without exception, need to pick a university subject relevant to their career path. Using photos of some famous individuals, Emma and Keshvi asked the students to guess what subjects these celebrities had studied at university. The school students were surprised to discover that Chris Martin (lead singer of Coldplay), studied Ancient World Studies at UCL; Margaret Thatcher studied Chemistry at Oxford; Ursula Burns (CEO Xerox), studied Mechanical Engineering at NYU Polytechnic; and Harry Hill (comedian), studied Medicine at St George’s Hospital Medical School. Animated question and answer sessions completed each school presentation with groups of school students remaining behind to ask more personal questions.
For sixth formers at Luton’s Cardinal Newman school, Keshvi and Emma ran a session with Year 12s (aged 16-17) who were about to write personal statements for their university applications. Joined by former Cardinal Newman student, Sarah Atayero, now in her second year at Wadham studying Experimental Psychology, the undergraduates spoke openly about their own journeys to university and choices they made. Questions ranged from ‘what do you wear to an interview at Oxford?’ and ‘what sort of questions are you asked at interview?’ to ‘how do students cope with the work/social life balance?’ and ‘what are the differences between colleges? Answering honestly, the Wadham students shared their personal experience before circulating among the students to answer more specific questions.
Teachers from Luton schools were invited to a separate session run in collaboration with Emma Paulus, the Schools Liaison Officer from Pembroke College, Cambridge. Showcasing the advice and support available to school students – particularly those under the age of 16 – from both Oxford and Cambridge, the presentation and question and answer session gave teacher-specific advice. ‘Supercurricular’ activities, such as reading books, watching documentaries, attending lectures and listening to subject-related podcasts that students can pursue in their leisure time, were recommended as being helpful when it comes to writing personal statements for university application. The details of the admissions process were discussed, as well as opportunities for the teachers to hear about the student experience.
Overall, the undergraduates and I had an extremely busy and rewarding trip to Luton! During the next academic year we will continue to build our support so that students can aim high and reach their potential, regardless of their backgrounds. We would like to thank the teachers across the schools (Ashcroft High, Cardinal Newman School, Challney Boys, Challney Girls, Denbigh High, Lea Manor High, Lealands High, Putteridge High, Stopsley High, and Houghton Regis Academy) for taking the time to organise our visits. We hope that our core messages of encouragement, and our advice about the choices ahead, have stayed with the one thousand students that we spoke to over the week."
1. From data collected on the Oxford Outreach Database, of the 800 students studying A Levels in Luton, only 1-2 people tend to be offered a place at Oxford per year