Over the October half term break, I was delighted to be invited back to New College at Oxford University. I studied English Language and Literature at New College between 1993 and 1996, before going on to train as an English and Media Studies teacher at Nottingham University in 1996-7.
New College is, ironically, one of the oldest colleges at Oxford University. Founded in 1379 by William of Wykeham, it was “new” at the time and the name has stuck!
I was invited back to record a podcast called 72 Weeks – so called because that is the average length of time it takes to study for an Oxford University degree (three terms of eight weeks over three years). The podcast brings together two people with a connection through New College, or Oxford more widely, to discuss their experiences and how it has shaped them, in the hope of “demystifying” the Oxford experience and encouraging more people, from more diverse backgrounds, to apply.
It was my great honour to record the podcast with Sarah, who successfully gained a place to read Chemistry at New College from the Sixth Form at Churchill in the summer of 2022. Just three weeks into her Oxford experience, Sarah was already thriving and getting her teeth into some serious Chemistry, as well as playing in the College Orchestra and working to start up a New College Ultimate Frisbee Team! It was lovely to hear Sarah reflecting on her first few weeks at university, as well as her time at Churchill and how that had prepared her for the experience.
Exactly three years earlier (almost to the day!) Sarah was part of a group of twenty three high-attaining Year 11 students that I had taken to New College to help them begin the process of thinking about university applications. We had no way of knowing, at the time, that it would be one of the last school visits we did before the pandemic hit, and that these students would not be able to sit their GCSEs the following summer. But Sarah spoke, in the podcast, about how the experience of spending the day at New College helped her to think: “why couldn’t I study here?” and to visualise herself as part of the community. The visit was one small part in helping her along the way of aiming high and putting her application in. Exceeding her offer of A*A*A? That was down to excellent teaching, a love of her subject, and buckets of hard work from Sarah herself!
One of my great driving passions throughout my career, and especially as a Headteacher, is to encourage students to aim high. The elite universities are not, and should not be, the exclusive domain of the independently educated – but the only way the balance of representation is going to shift is if more state-educated students apply. I’m delighted to say that the trends are positive, and I will do all I can to ensure that this continues.
You can listen to the conversation Sarah and I had with Daniel Powell, Outreach and Marketing Officer at New College, at the link below – or search for “72 Weeks” on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or your favourite podcast platform. I hope you enjoy listening as much as we enjoyed recording it!