How teachers can help minority students get into Oxford

One in three Oxford colleges admitted no black British students in 2015. Samina Khan explains how teachers can make a difference

Oxford University recently received a letter from over 100 MPs urging us to do more to admit more students from disadvantaged backgrounds. We know we need to move faster in diversifying and we’re already reaching out to underrepresented groups.

Oxford has dedicated programmes across the country, and projects working specifically with BAME communities who do not apply in the numbers we would like. For instance, projects with the African and Caribbean Society attracted over 200 black state school students (and grime artist Stormzy). We want to find the best students from all backgrounds.

There are several challenges, including the unacceptable attainment gaps between pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds and their better-off peers, between different ethnic groups, and between different parts of the UK. David Lammy MP argues that Oxford and Cambridge make so many more offers to students in the south-east than the north-east. But the disparities in our education system are well established long before students start their UCAS applications: more pupils in Buckinghamshire achieved three As at A-level last year than in the whole of the north-east.

Attainment differences certainly aren’t the fault of teachers. The national situation is complicated by social and regional disparities beybond even the considerable power of teachers – or universities – to solve.

Ultimately, though, we aren’t looking to expand our pool of applicants by reducing our grade requirements: we want to expand the pool by helping more students achieve the grades. I would like to write a personalised letter, as has been suggested, to all the best-performing students in the country, but the Data Protection Act means that I don’t have access to this data.

The national situation is complicated by social and regional disparities beybond even the considerable power of teachers

One way of doing this is by offering support to teachers. As a former teacher myself, I’m only too aware of the pressure you are under to inspire every student to achieve their potential. Often, universities like Oxford only reach young people when they start thinking about their next steps after school, but we understand the need to intervene earlier. We’ve recently launched an innovative new approach to reach young people with potential, and to support teachers in supporting them.

We believe this new initiative can offer a more level playing field for intellectual curiosity. Oxplore is our first digital outreach portal, a website built with extensive feedback from underrepresented groups.

It poses “big questions” suggested by young people, which offer interdisciplinary approaches to topical debates couched to engage those from year 7 right through to year 13. Questions range from “could there be real-life X-Men?” to “does fake news matter?” They’re designed to stimulate curiosity about the world, and the academic approaches to it through the wide range of subjects available at a university like Oxford.

We’ve also incorporated features like voting, commenting, and the facility to submit questions to the site. All this sits alongside a programme of online interactive events; our next one, in December, looks at whether money can buy happiness.

Oxplore has already been well received by teachers, and many are using it as an out-of-the-box activity to support their most able students, or encouraging them to access it in their free time. At Burton Borough School, they’ve used it as the basis for a philosopher’s tea party, while Southborough High School has set up a lunchtime Oxplore club. Other teachers are using it in debate clubs as extension activities for talented pupils, and in form time on tablets or PCs. We’re reassured that the boundless energy and creativity of teachers can help young people to make the most of this flexible tool.

We originally want Oxplore to be accessed outside school, but we’ve been so inspired by the impact teachers have had, that the team will soon be developing a digital resource specifically for them.

The X-Men’s Professor X is a famous fictional Oxford alumnus, but you don’t need superpowers to get in. Exploring whether there could be real-life X-Men (or any of our other big questions) could offer your students super-curricular powers.

Samina Khan is director of undergraduate admissions and outreach at the University of Oxford

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