Education: Cambridge is not just for toffs

The university is trying to change its image in an effort to attract applicants from state schools. By Judith Judd
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The Independent Online
When Nick Forbes decided to apply to Cambridge three years ago, he faced two obstacles from his comprehensive school - prejudice and ignorance. Now reading social and political science at the university and president of the students' union, Nick recalls that teachers at his school in the North-east knew little about Cambridge and didn't want to find out more.

"They didn't know how to go about applying or how the college structure worked," he says. "They didn't realise that you had to apply to a college and not the university as a whole."

They also advised him not to go there.

"The headmaster had very strong views that Oxbridge was an awful, elitist place. When I wanted extra lessons to prepare me for the exam applicants can take in the sixth term, the teachers flatly refused to give them."

This vacation Nick and another 830 Cambridge students will visit comprehensives throughout Britain to try and persuade sixth-formers that the typical Cambridge student is not a Pimms-swilling, dinner-jacketed public school product. Target Schools, as the programme is called, is part of the university's efforts to attract more state school pupils. Last week, the university hosted a conference for both state and independent schoolteachers as part of its campaign to change its image.

Alex King, one of the volunteers, went to an inner-city sixth-form college where the attitude of teachers to Oxbridge was, at best, lukewarm. He finds the scheme works well in breaking down barriers. "Most sixth-formers don't expect to see a Cambridge student in jeans," he says. "They also think we're all boring and don't do anything but work all the time."

The university has been trying for at least 10 years to increase its share of state school pupils but has had only limited success. The abolition of the entrance exam in 1987 did increase the numbers applying from state schools, but the proportion of state school pupils accepted soon levelled off. For six years the percentage of state and independent school pupils has remained stubbornly the same.

Entry is, of course, highly competitive. There are three applicants for every place and more than 90 per cent of those who get in score at least two As and a B at A-level. Around 3,000 of those who are rejected have three As. Yet the university says the figures show that there is still an untapped pool of talent among state school students. While 69 per cent of students with top A-level grades are from state schools, they account for only 50 per cent of successful applicants.

Susan Stobbs, chairman of the Cambridge Admissions Forum, which consists of admissions tutors, says: "Independent schools are still more successful at getting their pupils into Cambridge."

Another explanation, she suggests, may be that state school pupils tend to apply for the most popular subjects.

Colleges are taking action to ensure that pupils from state schools and ethnic minority candidates are not disadvantaged during interviews, a vital part of the selection process, since 93 per cent of those who apply are interviewed.

A headteacher recently complained that a Muslim applicant wearing a headscarf was asked where she came from and what her parents did. The forum is drawing up guidelines for interviewing ethnic minorities, which will be vetted by the Commission for Racial Equality. Many colleges have started to issue general guidelines for interviewing.

ENTRY POINTS

Most people are made offers conditional on A-level results.

There is a special Cambridge exam that is taken mainly by scientists and some maths applicants.

You don't need to apply to a college. Those who don't (700 this year) are allocated by computer to the college with fewest applicants in their subject.

Nine colleges take part in a special entry scheme that makes lower conditional A-level offers to anyone who has been socially or educationally disadvantaged (16 out of 43 were successful this year).

The number of applicants for each place are: English 4.1, Medicine and Law 4, Economics 3.5, Engineering and Modern and Medieval Languages 3, History 2.7, Natural Sciences 2.5 and Maths 2.4.

The university prospectus shows which colleges have the most applicants for which subjects. King's College, for example, is very popular for English, history, maths, science and medicine.

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