Oxbridge has long faced criticism for accepting too many students from privileged backgrounds. But one Oxford college, Mansfield, stands apart from the rest, with nine in 10 of the students it admitted this year coming from state schools. How has it achieved this?
In a recent report, David Lammy launched a scathing attack after data he obtained showed the number of students accepted at Oxford and Cambridge universities heavily skewed towards those from the Home Counties and from well-off families – with the numbers edging upwards.
The MP criticised the universities’ colleges for being “fiefdoms of entrenched privilege”.
Across Oxford the number of state school-educated students is about 60% – the independent sector accounts for 6.5% of all pupils nationally – but at Mansfield College that figure has jumped to above 90%.
Image caption JCR president Joe Inwood said Mansfield College was created to help the excluded, an ethos that has endured to this day
The college’s website prominently describes it as “open, friendly, welcoming”, and both staff and students are proud of its reputation for diversity.
Opened in Oxford in 1886, the college’s original purpose was to provide further education for nonconformist ministers, and that anti-establishment streak has carried on down the generations.
The college’s JCR Committee president and third-year history student Joe Inwood said some Oxford colleges were set up specifically to be exclusive and elitist, and that might be reflected in their make-up today.
But Mansfield “has the opposite legacy, because it was created so people who were excluded by everyone else could come, and that has followed down the years”.
Image caption Mansfield’s chapel doubles as the college’s dining hall
One beneficiary is first-year maths student Codie Wood, who went to school in a working-class area of Salford and initially didn’t think Oxford would be for her.
“Oxford always seemed something kind of unattainable,” she said. “It was something that posher people from private schools went for, and not something I would have considered.
“Mansfield goes out of its way to attract state school students… my school didn’t send many people to Oxford. But they came in and talked to us and made it seem more human.”
Staff put Mansfield’s success down to an access and outreach programme that involves about a third of its students.
College representatives make thousands of visits every year to schools across the UK, dispelling myths and offering advice to students who might never have thought Oxford was a realistic goal.
Image copyright Mansfield College Image caption Oliver Cromwell is among the nonconformist figures depicted in the chapel’s stained-glass windows
Senior tutor and and tutor for admissions Lucinda Rumsey said the college had regularly achieved the university’s largest proportion of state school students over the past 17 years.
“How we got where we are is partly that we started a long time ago,” she said.
“We decided nearly 20 years ago to run a project to encourage students from further education colleges to apply to Oxford.
“We formed a consortium with several other Oxford colleges and extended the outreach project to sixth form colleges.”
Within a couple of years the university as a whole was receiving more applicants from that sector – with many applying to Mansfield.
Mansfield College – a brief history
Image copyright Mansfield College Image caption Mansfield College’s Champneys buildings under construction in 1888
Since 2001 the percentage of state school students admitted to Mansfield has risen from 67.1% to regularly in excess of 80%, hitting a high of 91.4% for its most recent intake.
The college is also proud that 25% of its students are non-white and 25% are from the north of England. (It doesn’t have data regarding the social class of students as it says it isn’t allowed to collect this.)
Mansfield’s success shows “that the talent is there if Oxbridge colleges make it a priority to go out to hard-to-reach areas and find it”, Mr Lammy told the BBC.
He added that the college’s recent results, which are the best in its history, showed that widening access does not lower standards.
He said: “My fear is that the Oxbridge collegiate system means that real change will not be forthcoming. What we are seeing is a concerted effort by some colleges being undermined by the majority.
“What we really need is systemic change and that can only come at a university-wide level or from the government.”
Oxford University said addressing inequality “requires a huge, joined-up effort across society”, and the House of Commons Education Select Committee is planning to look into the issue.
Image caption David Lammy is recommending a centralised admissions process for all colleges
Access and admissions officer Helen Brooks said Mansfield runs events with schools every year, some of which might never have sent a student to Oxbridge before.
She said: “Part of our work does involve dispelling myths and misconceptions about Oxford in particular, but we also support schools in providing advice and guidance about higher education more generally.
“Some students are very apprehensive about various aspects of the admissions process, so we put a lot of effort into making them feel more comfortable and confident about what to expect.”
She added that the college used “a robust system of contextual data” which includes information both about the candidate’s school or college and also about the area in which they live.
“This makes it easier for tutors to identify students who have performed extremely well, perhaps in spite of their background, and who show real potential to excel on the course.”
Image caption Students and staff are proud of the college’s welcoming reputation
Aondoyima Ioratim-Uba, Mansfield’s Junior Common Room access officer, said the college’s success in attracting students from state schools had helped to breed further success.
“We are kind of in this ideal situation, where we have lots of access already going on, so when people come here they get involved in that too,” he said.
Ms Rumsey said she hoped the college would continue to widen access and increase its diversity, but warned that any future plans were dependent on money.
“We are the poorest college by some way and we have the smallest resources,” she said, although she added that Mansfield would continue visiting schools to spread the message that Oxford is not just for the well off.
Image caption The college was not formally part of Oxford University until 1955
She said the college would like to find the funds to meet the travel costs of prospective students visiting Oxford, “as many can’t afford the train fare”.
And so clearly there is still work to be done, even for a college that admits a higher percentage of state-educated students than any other.
Mansfield College’s simple goal is spelled out by Helen Brooks.
“Our ultimate aim is that everyone should feel like Oxford is an option for them, regardless of where they come from.”
My shock at discovering I was a donor child
One man says the revelation split his family, while a woman says she is now closer to her mother because of it.
When parents tell a child that he or she was conceived from a donated egg, or donated sperm, it can come as quite a shock.
After Elaine Chong wrote about donating her eggs to help other couples have a child, two readers got in touch to explain how the revelation that they were donor children affected them – one said it split his family, the other said it drew hers even closer together.
‘My entire existence is a lie’
I found out I was donor-conceived when I was 22. The conversation was not planned. When my younger sister discovered she was pregnant she asked my parents if there were any hereditary family conditions that she needed to be mindful about. Then my parents told her that they couldn’t answer her question that she had been born as a result of gamete donation.
My social father (this is what we call the parents who raise us) then told me that was also the case for me. He said they had gone to a doctor at Harley Street who had helped them conceive both myself and my sister, who is three years younger. But that was all he was willing to talk about and neither he nor my social mother wanted to discuss the subject any more.
As I was conceived in the early 80s it’s impossible to find records as to who the egg and sperm donors, my biological parents, are. It was rare for that information to be kept on file then.
I’d often wondered why I looked so different to the people that raised me. I’m tall, hairy, with dark eyes and features. My parents are shorter, pale with light eyes. I started wondering if maybe I could be of a different ethnicity. Suddenly my whole existence felt like a lie.
My relationship with my social parents deteriorated and I spent years moving around, doing a number of odd jobs. I also battled with gambling issues. I felt like a gypsy. I should add that my sister had a different reaction to me. She maintains a good relationship with our social parents, whereas mine has almost entirely broken down.
Even though I am now married, with a young child of my own, I am still against gamete donation. We shouldn’t be playing around with science like this. If I had been adopted, it would be easier to trace the story of how I came to be and easier to find roots. As it stands it’s unlikely that my egg or sperm donor parents knew each other, and I don’t know the motivations of why they chose to donate.
I feel that donor conception is a trade in human beings and very few people consider the effects it has on a child.
John, 35, UK
‘I also want to be an egg donor’
My sister and I have always been almost opposites – which was the main reason why I could tell something was different between us. She was slim, smart, and a rule-abider. I was more of a wild child with an athletic build. Throughout our childhood, it was always a joking topic, but it was never addressed until I was 11.
My dad and I were in the car and I had brought up again how my sister and I were so different. He said: “Yeah, we can talk about it when we get home.” I was like, what? After all this time, now there’s an explanation! In a way it was satisfying to know that my premonitions were correct.
At home, it was a full family conversation. My mom cried when she confirmed my suspicions that my sister and I weren’t fully related.
She’d had a problem with her IUD implant in the 70s that affected her uterus and the transport of her own eggs. She had never told anyone in her family except for her mother because of the stigma against not being able to get pregnant.
My parents told me that my sister was an in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) baby, with my mom’s egg and my dad’s sperm, and that I was conceived from an egg donor with my dad’s sperm.
It was very emotional. I can vividly remember that.
It’s such a fragile state to be in, to have your own kid question where they’re from. It was one of those things where my mom thought if I knew that I wasn’t necessarily related to her, I would push her away – that’s what she conveyed to me.
After, I remember sitting in my room and I felt like I had known it was true the whole time. I had grown up with these differences and my parents never loved me any less. I’ve never felt betrayed – I’ve just felt grateful for the chance to be given life.
Image caption Elizabeth (left) and her sister
My mom and I have gotten closer because of it. I think it is the bravest thing she has ever done. I began to see how it had shaped her as a mother too – every night she would tell my sister and me: “We did everything to have you, we’re so grateful for you in our lives.” Now I understand that they really did do everything.
As I got older, I became more intrigued by IVF. I thought it was very interesting to see how my parents had taken this very new technology and applied it to their lives.
I want to be an egg donor once I finish college because it would make me feel so proud.
I want to represent a successful story of in-vitro. My mom is very supportive of me becoming an egg donor. I think it would make her feel like she has continued the process of family completion in a way.
Donor conception is still seen as a very secretive process, but I think if it were to have more light brought to it, things might change. If I could help at all to de-stigmatise the idea, I would feel very proud.
Elizabeth, 21, US
When to tell the children
If children have been conceived from a donated egg or sperm it’s good to tell them early, says Nina Barnsley, director of the Donor Conception Network. Ideally at the age of five, and no later than 10.
This allows them to get used to the idea as they grow, and averts the possibly traumatic experience of a sudden revelation later on. “It ends up being just an exciting story of how they came into the world,” she says. “Parents should see it as an open door to continuing the conversation as the child wishes and ages.”
If parents wait until their child is an adult, they may be asked why they hid the truth for so long. But late is better than never, Barnsley says, and better than a deathbed confession. “We’ve had children in their 30s with parents in their 70s when they have the conversation. It can go very well.”
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Should young children be grouped by ability?
Research suggests school starters are being increasingly grouped by ability – but is this a good thing?
Should children as young as three, four and five be taught by ability?
Grouping children like this in nursery school, Reception and Years 1 and 2 is increasingly common across England, according to a report by University College London’s Institute of Education and the National Education Union.
The study raises concerns about the impact of teaching by ability on pupils’ confidence and aspirations.
But while some are critical of the practice, others say it works well.
So what are the different views on the issues of grouping children in the early years, Reception and Key Stage 1?
In the Grouping in Early Years and KS1 “A necessary evil”? report, which was based on responses from 1,400 union members, authors Dr Guy Roberts-Holmes and Dr Alice Bradbury claim the practice of grouping young children has become “taken for granted”.
Image copyright UCL
The report says school leadership teams expect teachers to group pupils and the practice is seen as preparation for tests such as the phonics screening check and KS1 Sats tests.
“Many teachers think children are aware of their group, and they are concerned about the detrimental impact of being labelled on children’s self-confidence and behaviour, and about the production of limits on children’s learning,” it says.
“There were concerns raised that this could have a potentially negative impact upon some children’s mental health.
“Teachers both in early years and KS1 feel that the pressure of assessments produces the need for grouping in some form.”
The research quotes a teacher from a focus group who recalled a girl telling her that her aspiration to become a doctor, like her mother, had disappeared when she was moved down a set.
Some people feel that grouping children so the work is targeted to their individual needs makes perfect sense.
John Blake, head of education at the think tank Policy Exchange, says: “If children need additional support to understand the key concepts of learning, then grouping them together to provide such support is perfectly sensible.
Image copyright Policy Exchange
“Provided it is clear to teachers why the division has been made, and the additional support required is given, there is no reason such grouping should be bad for children – quite the reverse, in fact, since schools should be using whatever tools they think are appropriate to ensure children have learnt the curriculum.
“Parents should be worried if schools were avoiding teaching children appropriately, using effective methods, including ability grouping if the school judges that to be appropriate.”
Mr Blake says it is a teacher’s job to make sure that children don’t feel inadequate or stressed.
“There is no reason at all that teachers should be passing on to children any stress or pressure about the phonics screening check or their Sats tests – these are not ‘high stakes tests’ for the students.
“Indeed, many schools never even tell the children they have been through a statutory test at all. I find it extraordinary that teachers think that children are stressed and it’s not the pupils’ fault.”
Mother-of-two Elisa felt let down when she found out her son had been grouped by ability – into a lower group – from Reception.
“It was like he’d been branded – ‘you belong to the lower group and you’ll never move up to the higher group’,” she said.
“I couldn’t understand why some of the mums were so pushy with their children in Reception and Year 1 – it was because they wanted to make sure they were in the advanced group.
“Children develop at different times, so to say at five or six that’s what you are, you’re not as smart as everyone else and you belong to a certain group and you’re stuck with it is just not fair – you’re condemning those children to say at that stage rather than pushing them on.”
Elisa says the experience made her son doubt himself.
“He called himself not as intelligent as the other children, he wasn’t as clever as so-and-so. He found it hard with his self-esteem, I think.”
Elisa says she’s now much stricter with her second child, who is a summer-born.
“I’m much less relaxed with her – she has to work a lot harder, I’m not going to let her fall behind. I tutor her, I’m not going to take any risks whatsoever – my trust with school after my experience with my son was lost.”
The head teacher
Some head teachers say the practice of grouping children helps them as professionals to target help, especially as some children start school “ready to go” and others need a lot of nurturing.
One school leader quoted in the UCL/NEU report said: “I personally think it’s better for the children, because otherwise your more able children get bored and frustrated and your less able children just get left behind.
“So the grouping means that you can focus your attention.”
Image copyright Getty Images
Whether and how teachers arrange any grouping of pupils is very much down to individual schools. Some schools might move children between groups fairly loosely, others might be more regimented.
Minister for children and families Robert Goodwill said: “Teachers and early years staff are best placed to make decisions about the teaching methods they use.
“There is no statutory requirement that suggests children should be grouped by ability.”
Teaching primary-age children by ability can be done in a number of ways, the UCL/NEU report says.
Streaming: Children are put in a class based on a view of their ability.
Setting: Children are placed in groups for particular subjects, usually literacy and maths, and move from their normal mixed-ability class for this subject.
Within-class ability grouping: Ability groups are used within a class – usually sitting at different tables with different tasks and levels of support. This may occur in a mixed-ability class, or within a set.
Interventions: Specific children are targeted and removed from the class for additional support or extension activities. This is often for a fixed period of time and a specific purpose, for example booster groups.
The nursery in Amsterdam’s red light district
A nursery is kept open to help local families to stay in inner-city Amsterdam
Princess Juliana nursery school is sandwiched between two brothels in the middle of Amsterdam’s red light district.
If you stand outside, you will hear passing tourists expressing disbelief that a school exists in such a location.
Manager Sally Fritzsche has heard them all – from the man who scolded her as she took the children on their weekly walk, to the tour guides who pretend it is a school for prostitutes’ children.
Despite its unusual location, the nursery is one of the best in the Dutch capital – in the last four years, its rating has risen from “red” to “green” on the city’s traffic light rating system.
This improvement came despite a cut to a government subsidy which let parents reclaim nursery fees from taxes, which had forced a number of other nursery providers out of business.
Keeping communities alive
Princess Juliana opened on the historic street of Warmoestraat in 1875, and moved to its current location of Oudekerksplein in 1999. It is metres from the canal which runs through Amsterdam’s red light district.
Image caption The Princess Juliana nursery in Amsterdam’s red-light district
Run by a company called Kleine Wereld (“small world”), the nursery’s nine teachers look after 60 children aged from three months to four years.
It opens from 7.30am to 6.30pm, which means there is a lot of overlap with the brothels’ opening hours of 10am until late.
Most children at the nursery come from families living in the nearby Nieuwmaarkt district – with fees reasonable for Amsterdam.
The students are from a broad range of backgrounds – some are from migrant families and speak no Dutch, others are children of musicians from well-known Dutch bands.
‘Just normal people’
When a new teacher starts at the school, they usually take time to adjust to their unusual commute.
“I have been here four years and still, when I walk past the ladies, I think ‘okay where do I look?’,” says manager, Sally Fritzsche.
“But it does not bother me. You just think there must be a reason why they are working there and you don’t know if it is a good one or a bad one, but you accept it.”
Image copyright Getty Images Image caption Keeping local services open is a way of preventing Amsterdam from being saturated with tourism
Wilma Korff, who grew up in the area and has taught at Princess Juliana for 28 years, believes the children actually benefit from the nursery’s location.
“I would say growing up here had a good effect on me, and it has a good effect on the children,” she says.
“They are growing up in a place that is a bit different, and they understand that these ladies are just normal people.”
Sally Fritzsche agrees. “These kids learn to see people as people,” she says. “They see the women waving and they wave back. They like them, and they have no judgement.”
Every week the children are taken for a walk through the neighbourhood in a colourful contraption that resembles several prams joined together.
The women in the windows recognise the children – some close their curtain as the group approaches, others wave.
Sometimes the children ask if the brothels are swimming pools. Sally Fritzsche lets parents decide how to answer these questions – but the children are usually too young to realise what they are seeing.
Image caption Without nurseries like Princess Juliana it would be impossible for families to stay in the inner city
Tourism, or more specifically resentment of tourism, is currently a major issue in Amsterdam – and Princess Juliana plays an unexpected role in slowing it down.
Dr Jan van der Borg, a tourism expert at KU Leuven in Belgium, says the city is suffering from a process that he calls “Venetianisation”.
This is named after the Italian city of Venice that has become a symbol of a local economy being saturated by the tourist industry, so much so that it is difficult for ordinary residents to carry on living there as local facilities disappear.
Dr van der Borg describes it as a “touristic monoculture that suffocates other social activities” – and in Amsterdam it means souvenir shops with big clogs and tulips replacing local services.
Amsterdam has responded by banning new tourist shops and the “beer bikes” which were popular with stag dos, and raising taxes on homeowners who rent their rooms for short stays.
But Dr van der Borg thinks this is the wrong approach – he says it is “much more efficient to enhance and strengthen alternative activities to tourism”, such as keeping schools open.
He says that if the city “nurtures” schools such as Princess Juliana, Venetianisation “can be slowed or even stopped”.
Image caption Sally Fritzsche says her nursery belongs here as much as the shops in the red-light district
So Princess Juliana, and the nearby secondary schools Sint Antoniusschool and Witte Olifant, play a vital role in preserving a residential community in the centre of Amsterdam.
“I cannot imagine what would happen to the neighbourhood if we were not here any more,” says Sally Fritzsche.
“What would parents do with their children? You get a good neighbourhood when you have good facilities around them. If that breaks down, the neighbourhood breaks down too.
“If all houses here were doing Airbnb, the whole neighbourhood would change and there would not be kids living here anymore.”
Image caption The nursery and sex workers operate side by side
Amsterdam’s local authority, which owns the building that houses Princess Juliana, recognises the nursery’s importance.
The school’s survival was threatened when its former operator pulled out in 2013 because of falling revenues.
But despite the lucrative potential of a large two-storey building in a central location, the council offered it to Kleine Wereld at a discounted rate.
So visitors to Amsterdam will still see a group of children and teachers walking through the red-light district for the foreseeable future.
This summer, Sally Fritzsche was confronted by a tourist during one of these walks. “He stopped us and said, ‘what are you doing with kids here?’,” she says.
“We were like, we are not going anywhere. We belong here.”
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