Education: Oxford tries to loosen the old school ties: Judith Judd looks at one college where sixth-form admission figures disprove suspicions of elitism

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The Independent Online
WHEN Ruth Deech, principal of St Anne's College, Oxford, visited a well known fee-paying school recently, a sixth-former asked: 'Is Oxford prejudiced against us?'

With all the publicity from Oxbridge colleges about their wish to attract more black, working-class, state school students, some white middle-class pupils from fee-paying schools are beginning to feel they are unwelcome in the two ancient universities.

But throughout the Eighties, the proportion of state school pupils admitted to Oxford has lagged behind entrants from fee-paying schools. Acceptances this year are running at 42.8 per cent for state schools and 48.6 per cent for independent schools, with the rest made up mainly of overseas students. Cambridge is doing a little better: tomorrow it will announce that 46.3 per cent of this year's entrants are from state schools, compared with 43.6 per cent from independents. Although that gap has widened this year, it is still too narrow, given that independent school pupils form only 9 per cent of the population.

Oxford academics have been disappointed by the number of state school entrants who opted for an offer conditional upon their A-level results, rather than sitting the university's entrance exam.

The university believed that pupils whose schools were not well equipped to coach them for the entrance exam would be attracted by a conditional A-level offer. But Brian Smith, master of St Catherine's and chairman of the Oxford colleges' management committee on admissions, says: 'Trying to make the entrance arrangements more user-friendly did not have the desired effect. Many state school candidates still take the university's exam.'

Some colleges have been more successful than others in attracting state school applicants. Over the past three years, the proportion of state school sixth-formers accepted at St Anne's has averaged 53.9 per cent compared with 38.8 per cent from fee-paying schools. Why?

The college has a tradition of accepting students from less privileged backgrounds. Mrs Deech says the surroundings help: modern buildings in a Victorian and Edwardian residential area. 'People feel at home when they come to visit. They don't feel intimidated, as they might if they went, for example, to Christ Church.'

St Anne's also tries actively to back its words about wanting more state school pupils. Apart from the round of school visits, sixth-form conferences and letter writing undertaken by many colleges, it tries to be as flexible as possible about entrance requirements. Most offers are made on the basis of one A and two Bs, and, although tutors make no promises, dropping a grade does not necessarily mean the candidate loses his or her offer of a place. By contrast, some of the more famous colleges make all the right noises, but insist on top grades.

Martin Speight, fellow in biology and tutor in admissions at St Anne's, says: 'Three As at A-level isn't necessarily a guide to intellectual potential, creativity and commitment. With well groomed grammar or independent school candidates, what you see is what you get, and may not get any better. With state school candidates, what you often have is the minimum and it is likely to improve a great deal.'

Nigel Bowles, fellow in politics, says his department makes allowances at interview for state school candidates. 'We have a lot of candidates from schools where the preparation for interview is not very good. That makes us more inclined to look at written work. Because candidates are under stress, interviews often distort.'

So are they prejudiced against independent school pupils? Mrs Deech says that, with so many tutors involved in admissions (more than 1,000 throughout the university), individual prejudices cannot dominate. Dr Bowles says the key is spotting potential: there is no point in admitting a candidate who will not cope with the course.

The university as a whole is looking for new ways of widening its appeal. Brian Smith says Oxford is considering schemes such as the one that operated with the Inner London Education Authority in the early Eighties: the authority itself picked potential students and put them forward for Oxford entrance.

The Oxford Access Scheme, set up with the backing of 15 of the university's 29 colleges, aims to encourage more ethnic minority and state school pupils to apply. It organises seminars for sixth-formers, tries to persuade teachers at comprehensive schools that the university is less elitist than they think, and asks tutors to be flexible about admitting less privileged pupils.

There is a telephone advice service that offers tips on university entry and on filling in Ucca forms. Jatinder Kohli, the scheme's co- ordinator, says: 'There is still a lot of prejudice against Oxford in schools. We are trying to persuade teachers to write references describing how disadvantaged their pupils are.'

The scheme wants colleges to make conditional offers on lower A-level grades. Mr Kohli says: 'We want to be able to go into inner-city schools and say you will get a lower offer if you apply. But that doesn't mean we want Oxford to get less able students.'

The Oxford Access Scheme is at St Hugh's College (0865 274942).

(Photograph omitted)