Investigation: College access schemes under the spotlight

There are large inconsistencies between colleges in the number of “link schools” they visit, an investigation by The Oxford Student has revealed.

Colleges are linked to local education authorities (LEAs), which are government bodies across the UK responsible for education in their jurisdiction. As the size of each LEA varies, there will be natural variation between the number of schools visited by each college.

It was shown that St Peter’s and Wadham visited considerably more state schools than others, while some colleges visited very few compared with the total number available in their linked LEAs. 

The findings, which were gathered from the 17 Oxford colleges that responded to the survey, also showed that some colleges interpreted the “link college” scheme differently. While some colleges chose to help only state schools, others helped both state and private schools.

The information gathered indicated a lack of correlation between the wealth of a college and the number of state schools they visited in their LEAs. 

The “link college” programme

According to the University, the “link colleges” scheme is designed to “simplify communication between the University and all schools in the United Kingdom.”

Within this programme, “each Oxford college is linked to a local authority to ensure that each school has a first point of contact within the University.” For example, the link college for the Local Authority of Hertfordshire is Balliol.  

The Oxford University “link colleges” webpage states: “All Oxford colleges have a common aim of providing guidance to help bright students make competitive applications, regardless of background.”

The major findings

Magdalen, New and St Hilda’s visited fewer than 30 state schools in their LEAs. Out of the 129 state schools that offer sixth form provision in their LEAs, Magdalen visited 30; St Hilda’s visited only 26 out of a possible 42 state schools with sixth form provision. 

Along with St Catherine’s, New is linked to five LEAs in Northern Ireland. In the last academic year, New visited 26 state schools whereas St Catherine’s visited 65. 

William Lee, Undergraduate Admissions and Access officer at New, said: “New College works very closely with St Catherine’s College (with whom responsibility for this region is shared) to ensure that all Northern Ireland state school pupils are invited to admissions events, using host schools as hubs for all schools in the relevant locality.”

During the 2012-2013 academic year, St Hilda’s was without a full-time Outreach Officer. From September-January Hilda’s shared a part-time Outreach Officer with Oriel and then from January-August Hilda’s had an interim Outreach Officer, who split their time equally between Hilda’s and Queen’s.

Martha Baskerville, who was appointed as Hilda’s first full-time Outreach Officer in August, said: “With part-time Outreach Officers for the last academic year and two turnovers, St Hilda’s worked with over 20% of our schools.”

“Since employing a full-time Outreach Officer in August 2013, St Hilda’s college has worked with 50% of our link schools and will continue to work with more for the remainder of the academic year.”

The state/private divide

Among the colleges that visited the most amount of schools in their Link Area, St Peter’s and Wadham topped the list. 

Both colleges visited over a hundred state schools in areas such as 

Cambridgeshire and Liverpool. Neither St Peter’s nor Wadham visited more than three private schools.

Of the 17 colleges surveyed, Mansfield, St Catherine’s, Hertford and New were the only colleges who did not visit any private schools in their LEAs.

Several of the colleges contacted visited more than ten independent schools in their LEAs. 

However, the University Press Office stated that: “The University does not focus on the state-independent school divide as an indicator of disadvantage.”

College wealth and 

outreach efforts

The investigation revealed that the wealth of a college does not always directly correlate to the amount of work it does with state schools.

Christ Church, which is traditionally seen as a wealthy Oxford college, visited 28 state schools in their LEAs, at which students from 43 state schools were present. There are 76 state schools that offer sixth form provision in Christ Church LEAs. 

By comparison, the reputedly less affluent St Peter’s visited 117 state schools, making it the college that visited the most state schools in its LEAs out of the 17 surveyed. 

The Very Revd. Christopher Lewis, outgoing Dean of Christ Church, said: “It is important to keep in touch with schools and we are doing that, especially in Norfolk, Suffolk and Barnet.”

“Some evidence, however, is pointing to the fact that other contacts (such as visits to Oxford and summer schools) may be more effective in broadening access.”

Pembroke, another college believed to be less well-off, has an innovative Outreach scheme in its LEAs. 

Every year students from its LEAs compete for places on its ‘Pem-Brooke London’ and ‘Pembroke North’ mentoring schemes.

Pembroke’s Outreach office stated that these programmes “exist to raise aspirations of talented pupils in link schools and to prepare them for the style of learning they will encounter at competitive universities”. 

Dr Peter Claus, Access Fellow at Pembroke, said: “We believe that although talent is equally distributed opportunities and aspirations are not, we have a role to play, along with other institutions, in tackling this problem.”

University response

In a statement from the University Press Office, a spokesperson pointed out that the work colleges do with their LEAs is only one part of Oxford University’s outreach programme. 

He said: “The collegiate University spends more than £5.67 million each year on outreach activities. 

“Most importantly the collegiate University recognises that outreach is a collaborative effort, involving a wide range of people from across the University, Colleges, courses, OUSU, and the museums and collections.

“The collegiate University engages with virtually all schools capable of fielding students capable of making a competitive application to Oxford and we have programmes like UNIQ which support individual students from disadvantaged backgrounds.”

Rachel Pickering, OUSU VP (Access and Academic Affairs), said: “The jury on what activity is best, what supports students the most and what provides the best value for money is still out  – and it’s something that OUSU will be working with the University on over the next academic year.”