Cambridge throws off elitist image

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Three Cambridge colleges have knocked on the head the image of their university being full of stuck-up rich kids - by taking all their students from a state education background.

The colleges' success in recruiting 100 per cent of their students from the state sector for the first time contrasts sharply with the picture of the university painted after last year's A-level results.

Claims of elitism were triggered by one college's decision to reject three of the country's top-performing state school pupils - each of whom had five grade As at A-level but failed to gain places at prestigious Trinity College.

Today, as a result of a plan by Cambridge to set up links with 150 further education colleges to widen participation, Hughes Hall, Lucy Cavendish and St Edmund's colleges can tell a different story. Their 100 per cent state sector intake compares with 55 per cent for the university as a whole.

It means students like Sarah Lodge, a 36-year-old, self-confessed one-time "no hoper" brought up on a council estate, can go to a meeting of young, black students from Lewisham College in south London and say: "If I can do it, so can you."

Ms Lodge, who is studying English at Lucy Cavendish, said: "I felt they were wondering, 'why has a white girl from Cambridge come here to persuade us to go up there?'

"I didn't feel out of my depth. I told them I'd been brought up on a council estate in Huddersfield, left school at 16 after O-levels and ran away from home at 17." Three of the Lewisham students have now applied to Cambridge.

Cambridge's drive has meant a 33 per cent increase in the number of over-21 or mature students taken over the past three years. It has helped to widen participation from poor, ethnic minority and disabled students.

Jacqueline Pereira, aged 25, a single mother with a six-year-old daughter, said: "I worked at Marks & Spencer and Boots, and had all sorts of different jobs.

"My last job was at a solicitors' firm where I got some experience. I decided to do an access course and then applied to Cambridge. I didn't think I'd get in.'' Ms Pereira, who is studying law, lives in a maisonette with her daughter. The university pays for childcare when she has to attend seminars out of school hours.

Janet Graham, the university's admissions officer, said young people were put off Cambridge because of "fear they are not good enough'' and "fear of the university environment - that Cambridge is not for them, full of stuck-up, rich kids and intelligent professors not in the real world and lots of awe-inspiring old buildings.

"It's not really like that, and this message needs to be pushed harder."