Oxford university targets 250 state school pupils in widening access push

Up to 250 state school pupils will be offered “transformative paths” to study at the University of Oxford, as the elite institution seeks to ensure a quarter of its students come from the most under-represented backgrounds.

But a leading social mobility charity said it was “crucial” that the university works with schools to make ensure the right pupils are targeted.

Two new access schemes, Opportunity Oxford and Foundation Oxford, will seek to boost the proportion of students at the university from the most deprived backgrounds from 15 per cent to 25 per cent within four years.

Oxford and other elite universities have come under increasing pressure to improve opportunities for pupils from deprived backgrounds to attend.

In 2016, a row broke out between Oxford, Cambridge and the Sutton Trust after the charity called for a streamlining of admissions processes in the wake of research which found the way applications are handled “can differ significantly” from college to college.

Further research last year revealed that eight top schools, including Eton, Westminster and St Paul’s School for boys, had the same number of pupils accepted to Oxbridge as three quarters of all other schools put together.

Opportunity Oxford is a study programme for up to 200 pupils who have applied to the university in the normal way and who are on course to get the required grades, but need support to transition to the university.

The pupils involved will take part in structured study at home and be given two weeks of residential study at Oxford just before the start of the undergraduate term.

The programme will be on offer for the current application round of pupils due to start this September.

Foundation Oxford, which is still in development, is a full-year programme for 50 pupils who have experienced personal disadvantage or “severely disrupted education”, such as refugees, children in care or carers themselves.

Offers will be made on the basis of lower contextual A-level grades, rather than the university’s standard offers, it said.

The university hopes both programmes will be at full capacity by 2023. 250 pupils represents a tenth of the university’s total intake.

“This is a sea change in Oxford admissions,” said vice-chancellor professor Louise Richardson.

“Colleagues from across the university, its colleges and departments have united behind a commitment to accelerate the pace at which we are diversifying our student body and ensuring that every academically exceptional student in the country knows that they have a fair chance of a place at Oxford.”

But Dr Luke Heselwood, from the think tank Reform, said the plans were a “drop in the ocean”.

“Disadvantaged students who get high enough grades to attend a top university are less likely to apply to one. Oxford’s efforts may be better spent targeting them.”

The debate over state school admissions has intensified in recent weeks after Anthony Wallersteiner, the head of elite private school Stowe, claimed that independent school pupils were being edged out by “social engineering” as universities seek to improve representation of state school pupils.

Oxford and the University of Cambridge both claimed over the weekend that they are now admitting record numbers of state school pupils.

The new schemes were welcomed by Sir Peter Lampl, founder and chairman of the Sutton Trust, which promotes social mobility.

“It’s great to see Oxford looking to new solutions to tackle the problem of how to support students from under-represented backgrounds. The scale of these programmes is really impressive,” he said.

“Our research has shown that many poorer pupils with the grades to get into Oxford or Cambridge just don’t apply. Hence it’s crucial that these programmes are targeted at the right young people by working closely with schools and colleges.”