Oxbridge made easier

State school pupils are increasingly willing to try for Oxford and Cambridge. A new book shows the way to get in. Hilary Wilce reports
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The Independent Online

First some good news. Comprehensive school children are increasingly willing to give Oxbridge a go. Thanks to open days, outreach visits and summer schools, old fears are breaking down and state schools that once would not have dreamed of entering the Oxbridge race are putting candidates forward.

First some good news. Comprehensive school children are increasingly willing to give Oxbridge a go. Thanks to open days, outreach visits and summer schools, old fears are breaking down and state schools that once would not have dreamed of entering the Oxbridge race are putting candidates forward.

George Stephenson High School, in a deprived part of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, is one. Last year it used everything it could to prepare four candidates for Oxbridge - and all got offers. "There are plenty of systems you can use now. It's a question of knowing which buttons to push," says the assistant head Helen Jackson.

But that also means bad news - and quite a lot of it. First, the growing number of applications - Oxford's were up six per cent last year - is making it ever more competitive. Debby Horsman, the Oxbridge co-ordinator for Wootton Upper School, a rural Bedfordshire comprehensive, says: "The biggest single difference now seems to be that people are no longer automatically granted an interview. We had one candidate this year who did not get one. I'd also say the universities are focusing more and more closely on academic ability."

The second is that this increased openness is not translating into more state school pupils at Oxbridge, or even much of a rise in overall numbers applying. Last year Oxford had a small increase in applicants from maintained schools, while Cambridge had a dip. More depressingly, their success rates were not encouraging. At Oxford, despite the rise in applicants, the proportion of state school students dropped from 54 to 52 per cent. Meanwhile, in Cambridge, only one in four comprehensive school applicants got an offer, compared to a third of all independent school pupil pupils.

What seems to be happening says Elfi Pallis, author of Oxbridge Entrance: the real rules (Tell Books, £10.99), is "a thinning of the soup". As more state schools put forward candidates, state schools which have been successful in the past are no longer doing so, or finding their pupils rejected. Meanwhile, the success rate of independent schools remains steady. Maybe access money, she observes tartly, might be better channelled to "projects which raise acceptance prospects, rather than aspirations. Perhaps a few seminars for admissions tutors on the way to communicate with inner-city kids would be a start."

Pallis, a sociologist and mother of an Oxford student, wrote the book after leading Saturday workshops for gifted and talented children and becoming frustrated by how few went on to Oxbridge. "It was when one of the fathers asked me, 'Oxbridge? Is that the same place as Cambridge?' that I realised how little people knew." She was also cross that people should feel embarrassed about not knowing. "I thought that if I just outlined how it was, all would be well. But when I started my research there were things that horrified me."

The result is a book which inches you through the admissions process, while also scrutinising how Oxbridge really works. There are accounts of sympathetic interviews, and accounts of horrendous ones ("Tim, a well-read candidate, was faced with an elderly interviewer who failed to greet him, settled into a distant window recess and after several minutes barked 'talk about your own subject'".) It offers tips on how to decide which college to apply for and how to prepare for an interview. In short, it gives the kind of mentoring that many independent school pupils - and a few lucky state school ones - take for granted.

No one wanted to publish it, so she did it herself last year, and it sold so well that a second, updated version has just come out. It has been used by schools to groom candidates, although she admits it is impossible to know if anyone has got an Oxbridge offer on the strength of it. "But immediately after it was published two or three interesting things happened," she says. The universities announced moves towards aptitude testing, they made more explicit the generous grants available to poor students, and "some colleges started to make offers of two Bs and an A, instead of three As, although they have kept it quiet because they don't want people to think they're making concessions."

Multiple factors drive such decisions, but it was clear that the book ruffled feathers. Some admissions tutors praised it, but Geoff Parks, the director of admissions for the Cambridge Colleges sent "a letter saying the university did not deal with people who seek to exploit their admissions procedure for commercial gain! This book took me two years to write and I haven't made a penny!"

Pallis acknowledges that both universities want the best candidates, wherever they come from, but argues that the interview system works against this. Her recipe for greater fairness is more emphasis on aptitude testing, a greater awareness of how good pupils from less privileged backgrounds have to be to get themselves to Oxbridge entry level, and an effort to build closer links with state school teachers rather than viewing them as "unreliable suppliers of goods".

'I'D NEVER HAVE THOUGHT I WAS WORTHY'

Shivani Sedov, 21, went to study geography at St Catharine's, Cambridge from The Heathland School, a Hounslow comprehensive. Her mother, who is divorced, works for an import:export company. "If my school hadn't had an Oxbridge programme I'd never have thought of applying," she says. "I'd never have thought I was worthy. I would have thought it was all people from private schools who had spent their whole life preparing for it. Then when I went for my interview the girl before me was very posh and came out carrying her briefcase and I thought, 'Oh my God!'

"My first interview was a tough general one. The woman was very stern, and didn't smile, but in the subject interview I just started raving about geography and I think they could see I was passionate about my subject. What they're looking for is someone they would want to teach next year. Doing mock interviews at school helped because I learnt about body language, and to breathe and calm down, and having mentors at school helped me too.

"When you think about going to Oxbridge you tend to think it's full of all these super-clever people, but when you actually go there you can see that they're not all freaks and geeks, and that they're no more clever than you."

education@independent.co.uk

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