Despite the obvious educational prestige associated with the city of Oxford, schools in our local area suffer from some of the lowest pupil attainment at GCSE level in the country – Oxford was ranked 320th out of 324 areas in England for this in 2012. This is inextricably linked to social and economic deprivation in the outer areas of the city, with pupils from lower income households in these areas (those on free school meals) performing below students from similar backgrounds across the country. This is a huge problem, not only because this is evidence that young people are being denied basic qualifications due to things they can’t control, but also because a lack of attainment at this level severely reduces the educational opportunities they have in the future. Significant numbers of young people in our city are leaving school not only with attending their local university a pipe dream, but with little hope of making it to university at all.
How can we help solve this problem? Of course, there is no one easy solution to the complex array of factors that contribute to the incredible amount of educational inequality that exists not only in our local area, but also in the UK as a whole as well as around the world. That doesn’t mean, though, that students can’t make a real difference, particularly in our local area. This year alone, more than 300 student volunteers have been involved in a total of 27 projects (such as Reading Plus, Maths Plus, and History Plus) in 13 local schools, including six projects that were set up this year.
It’s not just a numbers game either; our impact evaluation (both qualitative and quantitative) has shown student-tutoring makes a huge difference, both to students’ grades and their attitudes to learning in general. For example, in one school 83 per cent of students attending Geography Plus tutoring sessions with Oxford University and Oxford Brookes students gained 5 good (A*- C, including maths and English) GCSEs, compared to 73 per cent for those who were not participating in any Schools Plus projects. Teachers agree – 83 per cent of teachers interviewed strongly agreed that taking part in tutoring sessions had a positive effect on their students’ confidence and interest. In the words of one English teacher: “Not only do they feel increasingly familiar and confident with the texts they will be called upon to analyse, they feel listened to, supported and valued by their mentors, and this can only help to increase their chances of GCSE success… These are typically students on the C/D borderline, for whom securing a grade C will significantly impact upon their future prospects and life chances.” She also highlights the broadening of horizons the project fosters, on both sides of the relationship: “Our students begin to learn about the possibilities available to them after school – both at university and in the wider world. I would like to think that this is also reciprocal and that one of the many benefits the visiting mentors gain from working with other students is a greater insight into their lives, situations and hopes for the future.”
My personal journey with Schools Plus began by accident, because someone I knew happened to work at the Hub and was running a project, English Plus. I enjoyed my first couple of sessions, but something was missing – my passion for the subject. So I set up my own project, piloting History and Politics teaching in two secondary schools in Oxford. The challenges were unique in each. In one school, we as tutors were acting as an element of continuity for an A level class which simply did not have a permanent teacher. Helping with exam technique and revision guidance, we were providing students with a depth of subject knowledge and critically, passion, that they didn’t have elsewhere. In the other, passion was still key, but this was about helping a small history department in a huge school extend its reach into different subject areas and teach its best students the kind of independent research skills that their permanent teachers simply couldn’t. More than this, the sessions gave us all the opportunity to ask and answer questions, dispel myths and just have a laugh.
Through spending a few hours a week, tutoring the subject they love not only can students boost grades, we can also engage with our local community. It’s not ok for us to simply continue to revel in the privilege of our ivory tower – an excellent education should be within the reach of everyone, regardless of social and economic background, and I believe we as students have a duty to take action. Over 70 per cent of Schools Plus tutors feel their volunteering has helped increase their understanding of educational issues in the UK, but we can and we must, do better. Nervously going along to my first session ages ago because someone I knew thought I’d enjoy it, and being completely terrified of not fitting in has somehow evolved into a personal passion (some might call it an obsession) for tackling educational inequality and social action in general. By continuing to hold talks, debates and conferences on these issues, and by sharing our stories of them, we can break down the barriers of difference – not only between communities, but also within our own community. I believe everyone has a social cause that is important to them, and it is through engaging with our local community, and by actively raising awareness of it that we as students can create real sustainable change – both in terms of measurable short term impact and in terms of educating ourselves and each other into making social impact an integral part of our lives well into the future. The Oxford Hub, and the projects it supports are essential to this, and without it our School Plus volunteers would not have been able to make the difference they have, and many students would not be able to pursue their personal causes – whether they be environmental, social, or economic.