Oxford scheme offers path from disrupted schooling to university

Discontent is growing over how slowly the UK’s top universities are opening up to students from backgrounds not traditionally represented in their undergraduate intakes. So an experimental foundation year scheme at Oxford’s Lady Margaret Hall (based on a scheme at Trinity College Dublin) has attracted admiring attention from policymakers and other universities. Cambridge is now planning to imitate it from 2020. Here is one student’s story.

I didn’t know it at the time, but I have what is known as an “unstable educational history”.

Moving school up to two times a year was enjoyable. But by the time I came to think about going to university it was apparent that my itinerant and interrupted schooling was — at least compared with more conventional contemporaries — a formidable obstacle.

I grew up between Oxford and Pakistan. There were many times my grandfather in Pakistan needed my father to return to help him with running his businesses there during the times he was unwell. So due to us being young and needing to have the family together, we went back as a family, sometimes for six months and other times for up to a year. Each time, we were enrolled at a school there. My schools in Pakistan were excellent — the standards were applied rigorously and the work was hard. However, I also went through periods — especially in the middle of my GCSE years — when I had to teach myself what I had missed. I had to skip year nine due to differences between the educational systems in the two countries.

When we arrived back in the UK permanently, the deadlines for entry to many schools had passed. We had to settle for the only one that could offer us a place. It was so different. Instead of being pushed to get an A*, as I was in Pakistan, I was told a C was OK, as this would keep the A*-C stats (the pass rate) stable for the school. I remember asking what I needed to do in art to get a distinction: I was told a pass or maybe even a merit would be fine. I was angry. Very angry.

My school was barely three miles from the centre of Oxford and therefore from one of the best universities in the world. But very few students were destined to make that transition. It never occurred to me that I could be one.

And then — completely by chance — I overheard someone talking about a new foundation year at Lady Margaret Hall in Oxford. The college was just a 20-minute drive from my school, but it felt like a different place entirely. I googled the scraps of information I had stumbled on and decided there was no harm in applying. In my statement I wrote about moving a lot between countries and between schools. It dawned on me how hard it had been to adapt to new teachers and schools and to different syllabuses. I was called for interview and then received an offer to the English course. I was ecstatic.

When the time came to show up at the college in the September I was scared. Seeing the LMH access officer, a Muslim woman wearing a headscarf like mine, made me feel very comfortable and I relaxed. I was near home, I wasn’t too worried. This was going to be all right.

The foundation year really helped me to catch up with all those gaps that had formed in my education as a result of moving. There were 10 of us when we arrived, all from different backgrounds and with different reasons for being accepted. Some came from very low-income families, some from uncooperative schools. Then there’s me, the one with that “unstable educational history”.

People need to understand that mitigating circumstances are not always to do with financial deprivation. Things like disrupted schooling, as in my case, really affect students — these factors impact grades and inevitably our chances of getting into an institution like Oxford.

As a result of the foundation year, I felt so much more prepared to begin my undergraduate degree. My essay writing skills, my interpersonal skills and just the stability of university helped immensely. The scheme works as a bridge — to the university and then as a way of giving us the preparation for an Oxford entrance interview (which all of us on the foundation year had to go through). The extra time also really helped me to decide whether I wanted to study English at degree level.

At the end of the year — with three terms of continuous assessment and exams — I was made an offer to become a full undergraduate at LMH. It was an amazing feeling. Now as an undergraduate I can’t imagine studying anywhere else. I love my subject and the way it is taught here. I feel fully accepted as an ordinary Oxford student. I often think of the “Sliding Doors” moment of overhearing a chance conversation that changed my life.

The writer is a first year English Language and Literature student at Lady Margaret Hall college, Oxford