Can you charm your way into Oxbridge?

State-school pupils have not traditionally been taught the social skills to shine at Oxford and Cambridge interviews. Hilary Wilce visits a comprehensive where they are learning to talk with confidence
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The Independent Online

It's Oxbridge season again, and thousands of applicants are anxiously waiting to be called to interview. Independent schools will be putting the final polish on candidates who may well have already had a year's intensive preparation. Maintained-school candidates, if they are lucky, might get a five-minute mock interview with one of their teachers.

But at the Cotswold School, in Bourton-on-the-Water, a Gloucestershire comprehensive, it's a different story. Here, the eight Oxbridge candidates, all boys, are being given intensive social grooming courtesy of Rachel Holland, a former independent-school maths teacher and housemistress, who has clipped along in her high heels and smart, pink linen, two-piece to give them a morning's tuition in the lost arts of sitting, standing, walking, making small talk, dressing well and handing round canapés.

It might sound the sort of thing that would have sceptical teenagers lolling in their chairs and rolling their eyes skywards, but Rachel Holland is warm, engaging, funny and direct. People, she tells the boys bluntly, always judge others within a few seconds of meeting them, which is why first impressions are so vital. "You want to look as if you are carrying yourself well at all times."

She is also in tune with the times - as the best-selling author Lynne Truss launches a diatribe against our bad-mannered society in her new book, Talk To The Hand, and the Prime Minister wrestles with how to curb this country's increasingly yobbish and anti-social behaviour.

Step-by-step she takes the group through a good "meet and greet" - how to smile, make eye contact, and give a firm handshake. Lolling in chairs is a no-no, she says, even when you're waiting outside an interview room. "And don't sit with your legs really far apart, either; you know, in that 'I'm a rugby player, I'm going to take control' sort of way."

How do you enter an interview room? Rachel Holland demonstrates, miming closing the door quietly behind her, smiling warmly, walking confidently across the carpet, and shaking each interviewer's hand as she says her name.

Then the boys do it, over and over again - "head up, don't rush it, turn and sit down, but remember, don't sit down until you're invited to. Imagine your interviewers have had a bad day. You need to brighten it up for them. You need to announce to them that you're here. What you're saying when you come in like this is: 'Here I am, I'm so-and-so, and I'm really pleased to see you. Pay attention to me. I want my place and you should give it to me!'"

Rachel Holland set up Rachel Holland Associates to teach social skills after realising the popularity of the workshops she devised for the pupils of Millfield, the independent school where she was working. Her courses range from a three-hour workshop on basic manners for seven-to-10-year-olds, to a one-term course for school leavers on etiquette and life-skills, which covers all aspects of modern life including how to walk in high heels, accept a compliment, write a thankyou letter, and know when not to use a mobile phone. "Every child, no matter what their background, needs to be given social skills," she says. "Everyone needs to know how to be polite and well-mannered."

Once upon a time teaching these things was considered a parents' job, but today's parents, she says, are often as confused as their offspring. "They ask me, 'What should my child wear to interview?' Then I get lots of questions about eating. Young people say 'If there's lots of cutlery, what should I do?' They find the idea of, say, eating a meal with a future employer very intimidating. I think social skills need to be taught as a proper subject in schools, not an add-on, although it helps that I'm coming in from outside and am not their maths or physics teacher." So far she has taken her new company into four independent schools and has now come to the Cotswold School to try out her skills in the state sector by working with this small Oxbridge group, and running a larger workshop for 11-year-olds.

The headmistress, Ann Holland, came across her work through a family connection - Rachel Holland is her husband's niece - and thought: "If they're doing this at independent schools, why shouldn't my children have some of it, too?" Neither she, nor the boys, think for a minute that knowing how to hand round canapés is the key to getting into Oxbridge. Nevertheless, the effect of the workshop is astonishing. Over the course of the morning the candidates are transformed from amiable, lounging schoolboys into young men with palpable presence who both charm and command your attention. Holland, watching the action, straightens her back in her chair. "This is really, really practical stuff. I only wish someone had told me all this when I was young."

The boys, who come from a wide span of social backgrounds, soak up the non-stop stream of tips, ask lots of questions, and have fun swaggering up and down to music, trying to inject more confidence and authority into the way they walk. However they find learning how to make small talk in twos, and then threes, a tricky business. "It's hard work," agrees Rachel Holland. "You've got to store some questions in your head. You've got to fake it. You've got to look relaxed and confident. And remember the most important thing - smile!"

After a break, she turns to clothes. The boys are told to buy the best quality they can afford, to know their measurements - a tape measure is whipped out and they are all measured for sleeve length and neck size - and "always to try and buy a suit with vents at the back. It allows you to move. It really makes a difference." They are told when people wear evening dress, what "smart casual" consists of and how "come as you are'"invitations tend not to mean what they say.

"When would you wear a morning suit?" Rachel Holland asks them. "In the morning?" they volunteer, hopefully. Aspects of the workshop, like knowing when to wear a top hat, are clearly not relevant to their young lives, but they like being told what's what and, during a break, wax enthusiastic. Alex Green, 17, who is applying to read geography at Cambridge, says the morning has boosted his confidence. "I feel more assured of myself. I feel I know how to control myself in an interview. The little things about things like posture are really helpful." "It's really like acting. It's getting your image across," says Alex Bexon, 17, another geographer, who is applying to Oxford. "It's good. It's helpful. Definitely."

But they are keen to point out that this is just one of many things the school, a specialist language college, does for its pupils, and soon move on to talking about other visiting speakers, lunchtime Japanese classes, the student council and the pupils' environmental projects. Tom Greenhill, 18, the head boy, who is applying to Cambridge to read engineering, says, "This school has improved so much. My brother and sister came here and they didn't even think about going on to university; it wasn't what you did. Now it's normal to stay on after GCSEs."

The school has doubled its exam scores in 12 years, so that now just under 70 per cent of pupils get five good GCSEs, including maths and English. "We don't cheat here with vocational qualifications," says Ann Holland. "We are a leading-edge school and right at the very top for value-added."

However even a thriving maintained school like this would struggle to afford the services of Rachel Holland and her fellow consultants, if this was a commercial transaction.

Although fees vary according to circumstances, the going rate for teaching a one-day course to 50 or more pupils is just over £2,000, while a half-day course is £1,122. The cheapest course on offer is to teach between 10 and 20 pupils for a half day for £300.

"Either the course is booked by the school, who then market it to the parents at a price per individual pupil, or the school books and pays a school fee," says Rachel Holland, "but I would love to find a sponsor who considers social skills important because this would allow other schools like this to enjoy lessons in manners and respect for others. Local communities would also benefit as these young people would then leave school and know how to behave."

Rachel Holland's top tips for manners and confidence

Show positive body-language - think about how you sit, stand and walk and what your facial expression says. Keep your head up, your shoulders back and stand poised and relaxed.

"I can do this." Have confidence in yourself and believe you can do things. Underpin it with the integrity of standing by your values and knowing of how to handle yourself in social and work situations.

Learn and practice positive skills, including meeting and greeting people, making conversation, writing letters, having good table-manners and dressing appropriately.

Manners are all about respect for yourself and for others; treat people with the same courtesy you would like them to show you, remembering always that actions speak louder than words.

Eye contact at all time! It is very important.

"What it all adds up to," Holland says, "is going through life with a smile."