Every year, thousands of perfectly eligible candidates miss out on a place at Cambridge. Not because they flounder at their December interviews or because they fail to meet the grade requirements of their offer – instead, they miss out because they don’t even apply in the first place. Often it’s because of ill-founded stereotypes, occasionally (and unwittingly) lent credence by their teachers. At schools without a tradition of sending students to Oxbridge, the application process can be just as Byzantine for the teachers as it is for the students.
Like a Cambridge cyclist navigating the city’s congested, narrow streets, such a student’s path can seem laden with perilous hazards, with some teachers discouraging their Sixth Form students from making such an application, warning them about pitfalls (read: potholes) they might meet along the way. The roaring of the bus’s engine as it makes the turn just behind a cyclist, like the ominous audial forecast that precedes an avalanche, represents the other applicants, who one always assumes to be much more confident and self-assured than oneself.
But these stereotypes are often as widely-held as they are inaccurate. In recent years, hundreds of outreach initiatives have helped dispel many of these myths which would otherwise have discouraged students from applying. Although these schemes have directly engaged students, they often lacked a vital ingredient: engaging teachers. The newly-inaugurated Teacher Visitor Scheme, at Trinity College, is therefore a step in the right direction, acknowledging the vital role teachers play in the performance and preparedness of their students, not only in terms of academic and extra-curricular performance but also the options of further study which they subsequently pursue.
During the residential scheme, teachers meet college students, admissions staff and academics from the College. They will also be given the chance to work on a research project and observe a Cambridge supervision. The scheme promises to be more than a learning experience just for the visiting school teachers. Ultimately, it will also provide the College admission staff with a unique, candid insight into the experiences of those same teachers who will be helping their students write personal statements and prepare for their interviews.
This two-way learning process will prove valuable, allowing admission staff to appreciate some of the challenges faced by teachers, such as more recently, the reforms to the A Level exam system, which sees the AS Level stripped and the introduction of a new two-year linear exams. Notably, in the course of that debate, some universities, Cambridge included, argued that AS Levels should be retained because of their value in the admissions process.
The importance of a scheme targeting school teachers as part of the effort to widen access to Cambridge cannot be understated. Teachers play a vital role in inspiring and encouraging their students. But, unfortunately, recent studies have showed that the opposite is also true, where owing to their own lack of familiarity with the institution, teachers cannot provide the sufficient level of support to their students.
Findings published by the Sutton Trust last October revealed that 40 per cent of state secondary teachers rarely or never advised their brightest pupils to apply to either Oxford or Cambridge, a clear indication that misconceptions of elitism and impressions of cultural incompatibility continue to be in wide currency. Many teachers’ reservations were prompted by their belief that their students would be unhappy at such an institution; this, worryingly, reflects the findings of a similar survey conducted by the Trust some nine years ago.
Equally, impressions that the student body is formed disproportionately of the privately educated is inaccurate. A recent study revealed that the proportion of state sector entrants at Cambridge is now at 62 per cent, having risen from 54 per cent in the last decade. Ironically, that means Cambridge has a larger proportion of state-educated entrants than universities such as Bristol, Durham and St Andrews, other equally sought-after institutions to which students and teachers turn after having abnegated a Cambridge application.
Spending time at the University and interacting with the diverse student body will certainly help lay many of the teachers’ stereotypes to rest. The experience will give teachers the practical knowledge to support their students, most notably in what makes up a good personal statement, one of the first—among many documents—admission tutors first read to gain an insight into an applicant. A study last year found there to be a wide gulf between what teachers and admissions tutors at competitive universities saw as a good personal statement.
The disparity in the assessment of a personal statement in the study — in which the documents were read by both a teacher and a university admissions tutor — is illustrated aptly by one example, in which a teacher would rate a statement as “slightly” increasing the chances of a student of getting into a top university, while admission tutors would conclude it “slightly “ decreased their chances.
Findings from a Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission (SMSPC) report last year revealed that children from poorer families resident in the cities of Oxford and Cambridge had a lower chance of securing the requisite grades and a place at either institution than children from a comparable background who live in London.
The report also revealed that not one pupil eligible for free schools meals in Cambridgeshire got into Oxbridge in 2014 and no Oxfordshire pupil managed it in 2013, suggesting an almost profound divide between town and gown. This reality was recently thrown into sharp relief at a debate on the access of higher education. One of the panellists, a teacher at local comprehensive schools in the surrounding Cambridgeshire area, revealed that his students only associated the word Cambridge with the Grafton Centre, one of the local shopping centres, and not the University, many of whose colleges are just a mile away from the complex.
Admittedly, although it is a step in the right direction, the scheme is ultimately limited in scope. There will be, in the first year for example, only four places on the scheme. It will be encouraging and beneficial if other colleges followed suit, which would widen its scope to reach more and more teachers. But having attended the scheme and armed with greater knowledge of the admissions process, it is hoped that more and more teachers will encourage their brightest students to take the leap and make an application.