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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