When Abigail Fox arrived for her interview at Balliol College, Oxford, she felt as if she had landed on another planet. Raised near Solihull by her father, a factory worker, and mother, a childminder, nobody in her immediate family had attended university, and she was overwhelmed as she walked through Balliol's 13th Century grounds, once home to the likes of Herbert Asquith, Aldous Huxley, and Adam Smith.
“It was just so grand and amazing,” says Fox, who attended a comprehensive school. “Even the city itself was so different to anywhere else I’ve seen. I thought I might feel out of place, because you hear so much about how it’s all so posh and rich. It was all just a totally new experience.”
Fox is one of hundreds of teenagers from a disadvantaged background who travels to Oxford and Cambridge each year for an admissions interview.
Student groups have long complained that applicants like Fox are put at a disadvantage to their privately-educated competitors, many of whom are given one-to-one interview practice for months before their interview.
Oxbridge admissions are rarely out of the public spotlight, and next week's return of Ackley Bridge, a popular Channel Four school drama, follows a character from a working-class Asian family as she travels to Oxford for a daunting interview.
But when Fox stepped off the train in Oxford last year, she had one advantage over most of her competitors: for three months, she had received intensive interview practice from a current Oxford student as part of a new “mentoring” scheme set up by students.
Paired with a third-year student, Fox was trained for her entrance exam and given practice in the subtle art of the Oxbridge admissions interview.
From a young age, the thinking goes, children at private schools receive intensive tuition, and by the time they apply to Oxford or Cambridge the prospect of being grilled in an interview by world-renowned professors doesn't seem so frightening. What if the same treatment could be given to poor students for no cost at all?
It certainly worked for Fox: earlier this year she received an offer to study English Literature at Balliol College.
Joe Seddon, a recent Oxford graduate who set up ‘Access Oxbridge’ from his bedroom last year, enlisted an army of 500 volunteers, all of them current or recent Oxbridge students, to provide free interview practice to poor applicants.
Despite throwing huge wads of money at the problem, the 21-year-old says, his former university has failed to broaden its student body.
By now, the figures are well known: in 2017, privately-educated students made up 42 percent of those admitted to Oxford and 36 percent to Cambridge, despite making up less than seven percent of the UK population.
The universities accept more students from the UK’s top eight public schools than they do from 3,000 English state schools put together, and some years they admit more boys from Eton College than children on free-school meals.
Desperate to placate its critics, the two universities spend a combined £11 million each year on outreach initiatives, deploying a full-time fleet of staff to low-performing schools across the country, where they give inspirational talks promoting the merits of an Oxbridge education. But progress is glacially slow.
Last year, criticism reached tipping point when David Lammy, the Labour MP for Tottenham, released figures suggesting that Oxbridge is actually moving backwards on some equality measures: the number of students whose parents had top managerial or professional jobs, for instance, edged up from 79 to 81 percent between 2010 and 2015.
Now, Seddon thinks, it’s time for students to take matters into their own hands - not least because many disadvantaged applicants find their interview overwhelming. “They’re just really flummoxed by the whole process, and that stops them from showing their true academic potential.”
Raised in a single-parent family in Wakefield, Yorkshire, which has one of the lowest university admission rates in the country, it’s a feeling that Seddon remembers well.
“I sailed through my A-levels in schools [but] when I got to my Economics interview at Oxford, and just being in the ivory towers, [it felt] very different from the place I grew up, it completely threw me. I remember in my first interview just not knowing how to conform myself, and how to have that intellectual one-on-one conversation.”
Last year, he graduated from Mansfield College with a First in politics, philosophy, and economics, and turned down a job in the City to create the mentoring scheme. He says at least 50 of the 200 teenagers who signed up have now received offers, thanks to the “quick tricks and fixes” his service provides; one that's “much better than railing from the sidelines”.
Abigail Fox thinks mentoring may have made a crucial difference in getting her over the line. She first spotted the scheme at the bottom of an email from her teacher - “I just thought, Why not?”, she remembers.
Week after week, she discussed poetry, prose, and exam technique over a video chat with her mentor, English student Sophie Conquest, who volunteered for the scheme after it popped up on her Facebook feed.
Conquest guided her through her personal statement, as well as the the ELAT - Oxford’s English admissions exam - and those all-important interviews.
“I definitely think it gave me so much confidence throughout the whole process,” Fox says, adding that it made Oxford seem “less alien and far away - a bit more human, a bit closer, more reachable.”
The pair met for the first time earlier this year, when they were photographed in Oxford for The Telegraph.
Fox was pessimistic when she received an email from Oxford a few weeks after her interview. “I was on the train home, because I was fully expecting a rejection and just wanted to be alone. I opened it and I just couldn’t believe it. I rang up my dad and told him I’d got an offer, and he didn’t even know what an offer was,” she recalls with a chuckle. "My brother texted me to say he’d been crying about it.”
For Oxford's part, a spokesman said: “We are constantly monitoring our outreach work to make sure we are doing more of our most effective activities, and supporting prospective students to apply and accept offers study at Oxford University.
“Just this year we have expanded our UNIQ summer school for state school students by 500 places, because its evaluation showed that UNIQ students have a 34 per cent chance of successfully applying to Oxford compared to the average UK rate of 20 per cent.”
Do you think mentoring schemes will make a difference to the admissions policies at Britain's top universities?
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