The impact of Seren

Daniel Powell reports on the early successes of the Seren network

Brow-furrowed, I tried in vain to find fault with what I saw before me. A galaxy of star-graded GCSEs; breathless testimonials of excellence from teachers; gilded prophecies of the highest possible A2 results; to top it off, charity work of energy not seen since families of nineteenth century chocolatiers.  So why was this an unsuccessful application?  Surely this young person was exactly the sort of prodigy who would enrich Cambridge’s Economics department, emerging from an inner-city state comprehensive to become the next Galbraith, Keynes or Piketty. Surely this was yet another embarrassing Oxbridge admissions gaffe, the sort of Laura Spence style debacle that incurred the apoplexy of Gordon Brown at the turn of the century.  Wasn’t this just another example of the institutionalised prejudice of Famous Old Elitist Universities, preferring to fill their colleges with the sons and daughters of the affluent, rather than the cream of the state sector?  Same old, same old? Well, no, in fact.

Oxbridge Series

This week on Click on Wales we take a look at the Welsh experience of Oxbridge.
You can read the full series here

The Don sensed my bafflement and, much like a shepherd presented with a slow-witted flock, began prodding me benignly back towards the safety of the path. ‘This is Economics,’ he reminded me. ‘Look at his AS Mathematics performance, not his predicted A2 grade.’

And there it was. The one blemish on an otherwise flawless academic performance.  The candidate’s AS level result was a characteristically impressive A but his raw score average was below 90% and, as the contextual data from Cambridge informed us, they had hundreds of applicants performing above 90% mark and dozens above 95%.  The data, we were informed, suggested that his performance at interview would anchor him near the bottom of the pool despite his spectacular performances in every other subject, debate or project. And so it proved.  This candidate would, the Don opined, have been perfect for Oxford’s Politics, Philosophy and Economics course, with its focus on a more general aptitude-based test called the Thinking Skills Assessment. Instead, misguidedly, and to his detriment, the student had opted for Economics at Cambridge, with its heavier focus on mathematical aptitude and quantitative intelligence. Alas, it was too late for this candidate: the important numbers were not on his postcode or parents’ bank statement; they were on his AS results slip.

I wouldn’t have known this crucial nuance of the process had it not been for the tireless and indispensable efforts of the members of the Cambridge Outreach programme. Every year, liaison officers from Oxford and Cambridge visit more and more educators in Wales with more and more nuggets, nuances, hints and tips about how best to encourage more successful applications from Welsh students to their universities.  My experiences evaluating the application of our unfortunate aspiring economist, if not quite an epiphany, taught me that something more had to do done to knit together these strands into something far more integrated. What good was this knowledge if it failed to travel outside of the confines of the schools where the information had happened to be imparted?  Why should another Welsh student stumble down a manhole that ought to have been sidestepped nimbly with the right guidance from their school?  Why should chance bear such a prominent role in the opportunities of our young people?

A similar thought process provided the impetus for the Murphy Report (2014), the investigation into why Welsh students were consistently underrepresented at Oxbridge. Lord Murphy of Torfaen, upon surveying the landlines, decreed that the influence played by sheer blind chance was too great.  One gifted candidate may have an uncle with Oxon after his name on hand to craft personal statements, another equally talented tyro may have attended a school that hasn’t sent a solitary student to interview in the last decade.  An aspiring applicant might be steered by the guiding hand of a teacher with detailed knowledge of the process, while their counterpart from the same town might not even have been made aware of what a tutorial is.  It is this capriciousness that needed to be confronted. That is where Seren comes in.

Seren is a network of regional hubs in Wales and its mission statement puts front and centre the desire to ‘support Wales’ brightest sixth formers to achieve their academic potential and gain access to leading universities.’  If you are a high achieving Year 12 student, Seren wants you: for a talk from a leading Cambridge professor on Astrophysics at your local school; for a comparative literature tutorial by a distinguished lecturer from King’s College, London; for a Philosophy seminar, a personal statement writing masterclass, a Maths lecture. Whatever floats your intellectual boat, Seren is desperate to put you in touch with academics who want to see you realise your potential.

So, what will a successful Seren intervention look like?  Well, with the best will in the world, we can’t get away from the good old-fashioned quantitative measure: the flint-nosed bottom line business of ‘you sent x before, now you send y’.  That sort of measure is, of course, unavoidable. There will, however, be the old intangibles, what is currently known in the recruitment and aspiration business as ‘raising cultural capital’.  It doesn’t take the most indulgent mind to accept the proposition that we lag behind other areas of the UK when it comes to the almost imperceptible little strut that attends cultural confidence.  When we pack off a young Welsh candidate onto the train to London or Oxford or Cambridge for an interview, do we wave off someone who has been expected as a matter of routine to have met an academic?  Are we well wishing someone who has had a strong peer network of similarly minded, intellectually and culturally engaged friends?

If all this raising cultural capital stuff feels to be straight from one of the woolier levels of nebulous business speak hell, then I will grant you your scepticism.  I would, though, challenge you to retain your scepticism if you’d seen, as I have, young Seren learners from the south-east Wales regional hub brave the late evening elements to attend a two hour session with a visiting English Lit lecturer from King’s College, London.  Part tutorial, part lecture, the session left me in no doubt as to the potency of the Seren project.  Within half an hour, young people hitherto unbeknownst to each other, from schools of entirely different character, were throwing themselves into the cut and thrust of discourse with a refreshing lack of self-consciousness, challenging, analysing and proposing ideas on the similarities between Shakespeare’s use of the sonnet form in Romeo and Juliet and the early oeuvre of Philip Sidney.  How expertly the lecturer nurtured this and how enthusiastically these young people responded.  And how much potential there is, I mused, in the unintended benefits of linking our social media savvy Millennial born children to each other and to academics.  Part of the beauty of Seren is that it teaches people that they will not need the project as a crutch for further intellectual development.  They can just tweet the academic they met for a chat about the subject!

Yes, there are problems to be solved. How do we evaluate the candidacy of a student with 3A*s at GCSEs from a school with 25% A-C pass rate against a 7A* student from a relatively well-heeled school in the leafy suburbs?  Commensurability is a devil of task here.  How do we prepare our students for the battery of acronym-heavy aptitude tests that stand between them and a place reading Medicine, Law or PPE?  How do we convince every school that this is just as much for the students of a school which has sent a pupil to Oxbridge once in a decade as it is for the students of schools which aspire to send pupils every year?  These are head-scratchers but hardly Fermat’s Last Theorem in difficulty.  With astonishing self-restraint, I have refrained from punning on the project’s chosen name – Seren – but I hope you will indulge me if I say that I believe wholeheartedly that Seren will allow our brightest to shine.

Daniel Powell is Assistant Head of Sixth Form at Bassaleg School, Newport and a member of the South-East Wales Seren working group

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