a portrait of naomi kellman, with the words: womxn on the move, Naomi Kellman, founder of Target Oxbridge

Womxn on the Move: Naomi Kellman

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Image Description: Naomi Kellman

2020 has coincided with the anniversary of women’s admittances at various colleges at the University of Oxford. Not to mention that this same year has marked a hundred years since women first collected their degrees from the Sheldonian Theatre. To celebrate this, we have put together a ‘Womxn on the Move’ series. Across Michaelmas term, we will be showcasing the stories of womxn from different careers, backgrounds and walks of life to hear about their experiences and influential work.

To kick off our series we have a woman who needs no introduction. PPE alumna from Lincoln College (2008), Naomi Kellman is still tightly connected to the world of Oxford through her work with Rare Recruitment. She went on to found the Civil Service’s BAME Network and Target Oxbridge, a free programme that aims to increase the chances of black African and Caribbean students getting into the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge. Naomi set aside some time to speak about her experience at Oxford, her thoughts on access and outreach and how she sees her work progressing in the future. 

What was your experience like as a student at the University of Oxford? 

I was the only person of black heritage in my year in my College and I was not used to institutions lacking so much diversity. It was a bit of a culture shock as well and I found adjusting to Oxford quite hard academically speaking. I had always done well academically but there’s something about those first few weeks in Oxford when you’re expected to write two essays in a week and you don’t understand how that’s possible! I found that a lot of my peers on my course were a lot more familiar with philosophy and politics, in general. They already seemed to know a lot because of the type of education that they’d had and their families had already been to university. 

I spent a lot of time with the Oxford African and Caribbean society and that was my home away from home. It was very important for me in terms of feeling like I had a space where I found it quite easy to fit in and have people who had shared experiences and cultural references. That was really helpful for me. 

Over the three years I learnt a lot about my subject and also about myself and other people. By the end I had friends from different walks of life and I had grown more comfortable with the academic challenge. I also grew more confident in my ability to meet that challenge. By the end of my time, it felt like I could do it all. Just as I felt this, I had to leave! I was very happy to have done my degree, but it was definitely a challenge to adjust to Oxford and that has informed a lot of the work that I do in helping students to prepare for that. 

After graduating with a first-class degree in PPE, you went on to join the Civil Service. What was this experience like, especially having co-founded the BAME Fast Stream network? 

It was a really interesting time to be a civil servant. I joined in late 2012 under the coalition government. It was a time when there was a lot of media interest in policy, especially from a coalition angle. I ended up working on two quite high-profile policies: the adoption policy at the Department of Education; I then worked on the universal infant free school meals policy, which was controversial in some ways. I’d go to work and come home and what I had been talking about that week was on the news. For someone who had just left university, it was huge to be in the middle of something like that! 

At the fast stream I had a lot of responsibility. Within a few months I was designing and managing grants worth millions of pounds. Within a year I was working with a team to recommend policies worth £16 million which seemed crazy! I then moved to the Treasury on a secondment and we were working towards the spending review; it was really interesting to look at education spending. By that point everything on my screen was in billions! Especially as somebody who didn’t know anyone else who worked in policy before, it felt amazing to be there.

Like Oxford, it wasn’t as diverse as I expected it to be. The Fast Stream had many networks at the time; it had a women’s network, for example, but there wasn’t one for people from ethnic minority backgrounds. I made two friends on the Fast Stream who also noted this absence and wanted to do something about it. We co-founded the BAME Fast Stream network which still exists today! The aim was to provide support to fast streamers from ethnic minority backgrounds and to pull together events to welcome ethnic minorities from the next pay grade to share their tips on how they got through the promotion process. It was useful to provide access to role models and insight into those processes. 

Before you joined the civil service, you founded Target Oxbridge which was launched in 2012 to help black African and Caribbean students in the UK gain places at Oxbridge. What inspired you to start this program?  

Just after graduating, in 2011 I joined Rare Recruitment, a diversity specialist which was focusing on graduate recruitment; they helped ethnic minorities into top jobs. They helped me to join the civil service. That year it was reported that one black student had gone to Oxford. It wasn’t completely arcuate but what annoyed me was that nothing was done to fix the problem or make a difference. I was really conscious that a story like that might have put me off from applying to Oxford in the first place; I was worried about being the only black person there. My boss had also been to Oxford and felt the same way. We worked with a lot of black students through challenging processes. We figured we could use our expertise, and experience of being at Oxford, and apply that to the process.  

I was given the freedom to design a programme that I wished I’d had when applying.  I included the things that would’ve helped me to navigate the journey to Oxford and to know what I was getting into. I aimed to do three things: 

  1. Bust the myth that there are no black people at the Universities of Oxford or Cambridge and to show black students what it’s like to be there. 
  2. To help people make the right choices about their subjects.
  3. To help people through the admissions process stage by stage. 

We emulated the support that you would get at a school that sends lots of people to Oxbridge; we were helping people with their further reading, writing personal statements, preparing for the admissions tests, and we provided mentoring sessions to build their confidence in talking about their subjects. 

What are the biggest challenges that you’ve faced in your work? 

It changes over time. People expect it to be reaching out to students but this hasn’t been the case. We have always been oversubscribed and the number of applications has grown each year. This raises the important question about how to reach students in the right way.

Initially, people were surprised that the Target Oxbridge programme was so focused on black students and Oxbridge. The reason for this was because broader programmes hadn’t had an impact on this specific issue. It took a bit of time for people to understand the need for our focused approach. But now that people have, they have been a lot more comfortable with this. Just recently we have heard about Stormzy’s scholarships and the Oxford-Arlan Hamilton scholarship at Oxford. 

A big challenge is that we’re always oversubscribed. It has been hard to pick the students who do and don’t get help; we want to help as many people as we can but we have to turn away some of them. It’s a challenge faced by any programme; there aren’t quite enough resources to help everyone. We’re always thinking of ways to broaden our reach, such as introducing the Target Oxbridge podcast and Target Oxbridge Digital, which will provide support to an additional 160 students from 2021.. Often parents and schools write in for help; I hope the podcast will help to spread some of our insight to them. 

In light of your work for access and outreach, what are your thoughts on Oxford’s recent admissions report? What do you think this means for the University? 

It’s good to see that things are moving in a positive direction. The important thing is that we don’t think that everything is all sorted. It’s good to see that positive movement for students from all unrepresented groups but there’s still a way to go. We still have to reach a full representation level. 

Black students make up close to 5% of the A-Level population and they don’t make up 5% of the population at Oxford. This is possibly due to an attainment gap which you can see at A Level and it begins to emerge at GCSE level. I would love to do work with younger students because the sooner you can work with students the more chance you have at impacting that attainment gap and showing students what they need to be aiming for if they are going to attend a top institution. This is a big challenge. It’s not up to the University to solve all of the educational inequalities in the country, of course, however universities do have a role to play. It’s about looking at school-based access work and determining if it is focusing in on underrepresented groups. 

Following the horrific murder of George Floyd, there have been more discussions about racism around the world, including the UK. In our academic institutions, we have witnessed a bigger push for universities to take responsibility for dismantling institutional racism. What are your thoughts on the role of education in addressing issues of racism and advancing equality, diversity and inclusion?

I think there are two aspects to this: the institution itself and what it can do externally. Internally, there’s a question about diversity of staff: do we have diversity within the senior academics or even among master’s students? So far the answer is no. What can be done about that? Is work being done sufficiently to look at the barriers, like funding? There are systems that aren’t sufficiently contextualising student’s achievements when they apply for postgraduate study and funding, such as attainment gaps for ethnic minority students. We have to ensure that there are places for them and that funding is accessible.

There are plenty of questions about decolonising the curriculum. There’s a clear sense from students that they’re not seeing the breadth and range of topics and approaches to teaching topics that they’d like to see. This then feeds into the role of the University in the outside world. For example, when the statue of Edward Colston came down in Bristol a lot of people learnt about who he was for the first time and Bristol’s connection to the slave trade. There lies a question for universities as places that produce and disseminate knowledge: why is it that this knowledge is lacking in the public sphere? What roles do universities have in ensuring that our understandings of our history are broad and holistic as opposed to narrow? For universities to play that role externally they do need to think about their own institutions internally from a diversity and racism perspective.  

It’s a very complex question, of course. 

How do you see your work evolving in the near future? 

There will be questions as we move forward about representation for Caribbean students and black boys. I’m always thinking about this and it may become a bigger focus as things improve more generally for black students. There’s also another question about doing this work earlier to close those attainment gaps and letting students know what they need to achieve in order to be on track for something like Oxbridge. It’s not necessarily a simple aspiration for students at that level; if you don’t know somebody who has gone to Oxbridge, you don’t know what you need to be aiming for. You don’t know the standard that everyone else is working towards.

Generally, there’s a question about progression to postgraduate education. I don’t know if Target Oxbridge will be able to work on this but it is something that I’m mindful of. This seems to be the next frontier after undergraduate admissions. 

Where do you see yourself in five years’ time? 

I always laugh at this question because I don’t know! I’m a pretty organised person but I’ve never been someone to have a five-year plan! That’s because I’m conscious of the fact that life can surprise you. For example, when I was younger I didn’t know that one could make a career out of university access, with a focus on Oxbridge and black students. If I made a plan based on what I thought was possible, I wouldn’t be here. I have tended to make decisions based on what I’m passionate about, where I think I can make a meaningful difference with the skills that I have and what I’m happy doing. As long as I can do those things while learning and growing, that’s how I make decisions about my career. It has worked well so far! I plan to continue doing that and trying to remain curious. I want to keep an eye on all of the things that I find interesting and where they align with my skills. 

Quick-fire questions: 

What is something every student should know? 

There is always more to know. 

What is something every student should do?

Get a proper sleep cycle! My life changed when I started going to bed at a decent hour. 

What is something every student should read/watch/listen to?

I recently read Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other. It’s brilliant; everyone should read it! If you’re looking to read stories about Britain and people who are from groups that aren’t always well represented, it’s wonderful at telling those stories and helping people to develop empathy for people from different perspectives. 

Image courtesy of Naomi Kellman, taken for Lincoln College’s Fortieth Women’s Anniversary Portrait Exhibition.

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