Motivating maths pupils and reflecting on the latest Sutton Trust survey

We had the first two installments last Friday of one of the more unusual outreach activities we’ve run at Somerville. One of our mathematics tutors, Dr Mason Porter, was awarded a grant to run some workshops for schools focusing on his area of research, Network Science. I was very keen to support him in this, and therefore helped him organise these at Somerville.

Network Science is a new area of mathematics which has direct application to our everyday lives. We navigate transportation networks to go to work or to school, we have social networks of friends and colleagues, we browse the World Wide Web, we use social media such as Facebook and Twitter, and our economic institutions are tightly linked to each other in very complicated ways.

The workshops were set up for Year 9 students both in the local area and in the regions that Somerville is linked to. So with the students preparing to embark on their GCSEs, these workshops were designed to demonstrate the practical application of maths and inspire them to take their studies further.

We had never worked with schools in the local area before, and we don’t normally start talking to pupils before Year 10 – so this was a first in more ways than one. But the feedback was great, with the visitors eager to engage. We have the final event this Saturday, on a much bigger scale, and I’m really looking forward to seeing the results of all our preparation.

Also on Friday came the publication of a national survey of teachers commissioned by the Sutton Trust, which found that fewer than half of secondary state school teachers said they would advise their brightest pupils to apply to Oxford and Cambridge.

Teachers are key to really succeeding with widening access to Oxford, because they are the ones who know the issues that their pupils face. It’s the teachers who are advising students as they prepare to apply to university and make big decisions about their next step after school. At Oxford, we are increasing our efforts to recognize how important teachers are: on Friday the University held its second Inspirational Teachers Awards, recognizing the crucial role teachers and careers advisors play in encouraging talented students in their schools or colleges.

Every teacher that I have had contact with is incredibly keen to help their pupils to aim high. For example, I went to a school in West London last week to speak to some Year 10s 11s about what Oxford’s all about. The school has a large proportion of girls from Asian families, and during the Q&A session it transpired that the biggest barrier for them was the idea of living away from home (which is pretty much essential for Oxford students). Their teachers are very keen to start familiarizing them with the university experience, thinking and living independently, at an early age – hence my invitation to come and speak. So I can now start working more closely with the school on their strategies to address this issue.

But the Sutton Trust results are there for all to see. Maybe it’s a question of confidence – if teachers aren’t familiar with the admissions system at Oxford, they may feel that they can’t help their pupils navigate it successfully. That’s why our approach at Somerville is to work closely with teachers, to make sure that they can pass on their knowledge to pupils year after year. Any of our link schools (or anyone else, for that matter) is invited to contact Somerville for advice on applications, so that their students are making as competitive an application as possible.

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March madness over, along with the Easter break – now looking forward to the summer term

You may have noticed a quite prolonged silence on this blog recently. I’m pleased to say that it has been for a good reason though – March is the busiest month in the access calendar, and I can say for sure that for me it was the most hectic period since starting at Somerville. So here comes a long blog post.

The month started off calmly enough with a meeting of access officers across the different colleges and departments, to discuss an article from the British Educational Research Journal on working-class students in UK higher education. It seems so long ago now that I’m finding it hard to recall our conclusions, but it certainly provoked a spirited discussion of the role of attainment-raising in access, and how big an issue confidence is in our efforts to raise aspirations among lowest participation groups.

From there on in, the pace picked up significantly. During the first full week of March we hosted two events for Year 10s as part of the cross-college Pathways Programme (which I have written about in previous posts, and will no doubt be harping on about in the future). It was Pathways again the following week, this time three day-long events for Year 12s. The Year 12 events are a lot more serious in character – they are all about informing and supporting gifted students who are considering Oxbridge as an option for them. All the students were split into subject groups, and enjoyed two academic taster sessions in their subject, followed by a talk on the admissions process and information on how to find out more.  Over the three days, 450 Year 12s attended across 20 subjects, with 66 academic sessions delivered by 50 tutors – so it took a huge amount of organization, and I have to pay tribute for Joe Organ from Brasenose College, who took the lead role in pulling it all together.  

Because it was the vacation, it was a struggle to find current undergraduates to help with the events – thankfully I had a great deal of support from a wonderful first year physics and philosophy student at Somerville called Marsha. I cannot praise her highly enough, and her enthusiasm and calm were greatly appreciated while I was anxiously running around trying to ensure that everything was going well.

Marsha also accompanied me to one of our link schools on Monday 19th March to run a mock interview workshop for some of the teachers there. I have often found in my work to date that efforts to support school teachers, so that they can confidently and knowledgably support their students in turn, are some of the most valuable. It was a very enjoyable trip, and the first of its kind for me.

On the following Wednesday, I was driving around the Buckinghamshire countryside to deliver no fewer than three Oxbridge talks to schools sending a low percentage of their pupils to Oxford. The second school that I visited was especially worthwhile – it had taken a bit of persistence to get something firmed up in the diary, but I was so glad I did. The Deputy Head, who greeted me on arrival, told me that I was the first person from Oxford or Cambridge to make that sort of enquiry to their school. As a non-grammar school in a grammar school area, it is easily overlooked. But there was a good proportion of the 57 students I spoke to who had the potential to get the top grades – it was lack of confidence that was a key factor for many of them. I’m hoping to put together a programme of events with them, so that from an earlier point we can start some confidence- and aspiration-raising activities with them.

No rest for the wicked… back I hurried to Oxford, where that same day a group of student from Durham had arrived for a two-day residential visit. Durham isn’t one of the areas that Somerville usually works with, but we have a connection to the coordinator – the College Senior Tutor worked at Durham University before arriving here last July. So in partnership with Durham’s link college, Trinity, we ran an action-packed schedule of events, including personal statement and interview workshops (with help from Marsha again!). I also asked the students to do a research project, breaking into smaller groups to put together an exhibition on Somervillians of the past. Fast forward to Friday morning, and we had some great presentations on the achievements of Vera Brittain, Dorothy Hodgkin, Janet Vaughan and Indira Gandhi (photos to follow, I hope).

One more week to go, and there was still plenty to do. After a visit from some Year 11s from Hounslow, I was back on the road to deliver an ‘Oxbridge Explained’ talk to one of the Buckinghamshire grammar schools, co-presenting with Dr Andrew Bell from Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. Then the next day I was up at the crack of dawn to spend two days at the UCAS convention in London, which was truly hectic. It was a great opportunity to see some of those students I’d spoken to earlier in the week, in a more one-to-one environment, and to meet lots of other prospective students too. And then I had 10 days off – phew.

I’m writing this in 0th week – so it’s really preparation time for the coming term. With a big Year 9 mathematics event, our Teachers Day and two Open Days to plan, along with everything else, I’ll have plenty to keep me occupied!

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Changing the world at Somerville…

I knew it had been a while since I last blogged – and was surprised to see that almost three weeks have passed since the last update. The reason for this, though, is a good one, as most of my time has been spent organising two major College events.

The first was last Saturday, when around 100 Year 12s arrived at Somerville for a College study day. This was the second time that we’d run the study day, an initiative of Somerville’s French tutor, Dr Simon Kemp, but the first time that I’d been involved, and I’d already set myself a challenge by doubling the number of places on offer.

The day was all about giving students a taste of university – and particularly Oxford – life. At the centre were seminars with a maximum of 13 participants, run by College tutors in their own specialisms. This year we were able to offer sessions in seven different subjects: archaeology, biology, French, history, philosophy, physics (which ran twice) and zoology/ecology. Eight of our undergraduates generously gave up six hours of their day to help out, leading with tours of the College and some of the main University sites, answering questions about admissions and what it’s like to study here, and generally being extremely helpful.

We had a great response to the event – over 150 applications from 21 different schools. And despite a couple of worried phone calls from students who were unsure about the schedule for the day, everyone arrived unscathed and raring to go. The feedback again was fantastic, especially for the academic taster sessions, and emails keep coming in from visitors who enjoyed the day.

And the fun didn’t stop there! Yesterday saw a truly memorable arrival in the form of Cindy Gallop, Somervillian, advertising guru and internet entrepreneur. Although based in New York, Cindy decided to come back to Somerville especially to speak to our current students about how they, and Somerville, could change the world. Somerville’s Principal hosted last night’s talk in her house over cheese and wine, and Cindy’s presentation was eagerly anticipated – and it didn’t disappoint.

Armed with a hashtag, #Somervilleftw, Cindy is on a mission to help us transform the way we communicate, using new technology to reach out to prospective applicants. It was a fantastic evening, full of revelations about the amazing things that are going on here and ideas for changing peoples’ perceptions of what Oxford’s really about. One of our students later described Cindy as “possibly the most inspiring woman I’ve ever met” – so I expect you’ll be seeing big things happening at Somerville in 2012.

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Modern languages study day

Last Friday was a full day of access activity at Somerville, with the arrival of 40 Year 9 pupils from West London for a modern languages event.

The day was coordinated by Lampton School in Hounslow, and was part of raft of activities run by an initiative that partners independent and state schools. The purpose of the partnership is to raise standards and aspirations for pupils, to encourage the study of languages at A-level, university and beyond, and to show how studying languages is an excellent preparation for future careers (and life!).

It was a jam-packed schedule for the day. After a welcome presentation from me, we paid a visit the Ashmolean and the Taylorian (Oxford’s modern languages library) before lunch. Then after lunch they had tours of the College with some current undergraduates, before splitting into three groups for a one-hour language session with Oxford tutors. Dr Simon Kemp and Dr Almut Suerbaum ran sessions in French and German respectively, while Dr Kerstin Hoge from St Hilda’s very kindly came along to run a linguistics session.The day closed with a Q&A session with the undergraduates to find out what life at Oxford is all about.

It was a long way for the pupils to come – some had been travelling since 6.30 in the morning because of difficult transport connections – so I was pleased to see the enthusiasm that they arrived with. It’s a crucial time for them as they choose their GCSE options and, as one of the teachers who accompanied them commented to me, if they give up a language at this stage, they’re very unlikely to be able to pick it up again. So I hope that this event has helped to encourage them to value languages – and, who knows, perhaps they’ll be back at the Taylorian in a few years’ time.

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A busy start to 2012

Since joining Somerville last summer, I have been gradually building up our access work. This started with visits to some of the schools in our link regions of Buckinghamshire, Hounslow and Kingston, giving presentations and advice to their pupils, and planning activities for the coming months. Since the start of Hilary (Spring) Term though, things have started moving up a few gears.

On Monday of first week, I organised a briefing session for the college’s new Student Ambassador Scheme, which brings together students who are keen to help encourage applications from under-represented groups. The scheme is pretty independent – it was set up by the JCR Equality Opportunities Rep, and it’s up to the students to choose what direction it goes in – but I monitor and support the ambassadors’ work, giving them guidance and resources whenever needed. It’s also great to know that there’s now a pool of students I can ask for help when we have schools visiting Somerville. Everyone at the briefing seemed full of enthusiasm, which is a huge encouragement.

We had a teacher from Buckinghamshire come to visit Somerville for lunch on Thursday. She told us that although her school, a state grammar, had some (naturally) very able students, they weren’t sending the numbers to Oxbridge that they should be. We discussed the various reasons for this, and what we could do to encourage applications. I suggested setting up a programme of events, starting from Year 8 or 9, to help familiarise pupils with Oxford from an earlier age (I know many pupils can feel daunted by the grand architecture of some of the colleges, so it’s important to help them feel comfortable in these surroundings), and carrying on to application support in the sixth form. This programme will hopefully act as a prototype for other schools whose talented students aren’t considering Oxford, for whatever reason, and I will continue to post about its progress.

Thursday was also the date of this term’s meeting for all the college access and outreach officers, where we come together to share best practice and discuss issues that are affecting us. This term the main topic seems to be how to track students who benefit from our activities, so that we can measure their effectiveness and improve any as necessary. We’ll be working closely together and with the University to find the best method of doing this. I’m always impressed by the level of collaboration on, and commitment to, access between the colleges and departments. In fact, if you take into consideration all the resource that goes into it across the collegiate university, it really is a huge investment.

The final event of my busy week was on Saturday, when I hosted my first group visit to Somerville. I’m one of those people who worries about events, even if I’m not managing them, so I was more than a little nervous – but it all went extremely smoothly in the end. Our guests were a group of 17 students from the Pakistani community in Hounslow, plus four adult supervisors. The students ranged from Year 8 to Year 11, and came from seven different schools, who were all part of a community group called the Pakistani Welfare Association. The main organiser was from the area and had studied at Cambridge; he wanted to encourage more young people from his community to aspire to go to Oxbridge, and so contacted me to arrange the visit. I had three undergraduates helping on the day, to whom I am extremely grateful. They gave tours of the college and hosted a Q&A session at the end, and one also helped me supervise the group on a trip to the Natural History Museum. I know that the visitors really appreciated the opportunity to speak to current students throughout the day. Lots of them told me that they’ve now decided that they want to study at Oxford themselves – I couldn’t ask for better feedback!

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