In mid-March a strange silence fell over LMH. The giant Portakabins that had squatted outside Old Old Hall for more than two years as a temporary home for construction staff were winched out leaving daylight and space and quiet behind them.   

No more will students be woken by the arrival of the builders at an unGodly hour to dig, pile-drive, drill, saw and hammer outside their windows.  Norham Gardens has been restored to its customary state of peace. And LMH has an entirely new entrance, almost unrecognisable from what stood before. 

Raymond Erith has many admirers for the elegant library he designed in 1960. I think it’s fair to say he won fewer plaudits for the rather forbidding red brick frontage which served as LMH’s new entrance. He said he wanted a "rest from windows… I hope its long plain front will do something to rest and eyes and nerve of North Oxford.” 

Perhaps it did, though others made comparisons with Wormwood Scrubs. But the Erith front now retreats in the background, with new foreground buildings designed by John Simpson which include two new pavilions, a porters’ lodge  and ornate gates between two new graduate residential buildings. 

Simpson's new work completes an unfinished sequence of buildings that began with Basil Champneys (New Old Hall).  The new front quad is light and spacious, and restores Old Old Hall to due prominence. It is, itself, not one of the most beautiful buildings in Oxford, but it is one of the most important: the door through which the first women students in Oxford walked. A small step for those first nine young women, a giant step for womankind. 

One can never say "no more buildings" but it looks unlikely that anyone will, in the near future, contemplate a major expansion of LMH. So, for the moment, we settle down and adjust to our new size and facilities... and enjoy the sound of birdsong.

Not that life has been quiet on other fronts. Our first foundation year students are, as I write, about to enter their third term at LMH. They are exceptional young people and have adapted so well to life in Oxford. Their average household income is £13,000. Most of them have overcome considerable economic or social challenges to have achieved their level of study. None of them would be at Oxford without this scheme, so generously funded in its first year by an alumnus, Neil Simpkins, who himself felt that LMH was a transformative influence in his own life.

I've been doing some teaching of the 10 students, helping them with writing and constructing an argument. We began by going to observe a murder trial at Oxford Crown Court and thinking about narrative. Recently we went to the National Theatre in London. Only three of the cohort had seen a play before. Such moments still have the capacity to bring you up short as you think about the gap in cultural capital between such young people and others who have had a more financially secure start to life.

The Foundation Year have been a joy to teach and have absorbed information like sponges. And the rest of the college has been so warm, inclusive and welcoming that a common observation among second or third year undergraduates was they had no idea who the foundation year members were. In mid-March we interviewed for the second cohort and have been delighted by the quality and diversity of the students who have applied.

We have significantly expanded the scope and energy of out Outreach programme, partly in order to raise awareness of the Foundation Year, and partly to drum up business for LMH generally.

One of the areas of Britain with which LMH is linked is the London borough of Haringey, and we have forged a strong relationship with its schools and students - and also with council officials and members. We spent a day in the borough with a group of the most promising Year 12 students, who then followed up with a further day at LMH.

On our first contact we asked them to write on a post-it note the word that best summarised Oxford for them. Most wrote "posh."  On a visit to another comprehensive school in Gloucestershire I found the first question from bright Year 12 students thinking about university was "Does Oxford welcome state school kids?"

You take a deep breath. "Yes, of course."

The student persists. "Are all colleges equally welcoming?"

How to answer? They can do their own research and will find the honest answer is (or will appear to be) no. There is a spectrum of colleges from those whose intake is overwhelmingly state school to those whose intake is still predominantly from private schools.

Where is LMH in any league table of welcoming to state schools, the Gloucestershire students probe? "About the middle."

And so begins an interesting conversation, which I've had many times since arriving in Oxford, about what a "fair" system of admissions looks like.

Now, of course, "state schools" as a metric is, as Oxford itself keeps reminding people, not overwhelmingly meaningful. Selective grammar schools in the shires are not the same as inner-city comprehensives. Many private schools offer scholarships and bursaries to people from under-represented backgrounds.

But, in the absence of other published data, the state school/private school index is one prospective students may well consult to decide if a particular university (or college) appears to welcome people like them.

Our Foundation Year is a pretty significant intervention in that conversation. University College has since announced its own programme - more of a bridging course than a foundation year. At a symposium we organised at LMH in Hilary term, we learned from Univ's senior tutor that even the announcement of their own scheme has had a startling effect on the number of state school applicants to the college. Signals are important.

The same has been true with LMH: we have, in the past year, seen a 30 per cent rise in the number of applicants naming LMH as a first choice college.  Our intervention - along with our personal visits, an improved website and an imaginative use of social media  - is paying dividends which should, in time, benefit academic standards.

Alumni have been tremendously supportive. To date we have raised nearly £800,000 to help fund the first years of the Foundation Year pilot programme. We have been inundated with offers from members of the college offering advice, mentoring and support. Many have written privately, or have gone on social media to say publicly, how proud they are that their college is pioneering this scheme.

Which takes us back to Old Old Hall and the first students to walk through the door of 21 Norham Gardens (as it then was) in 1879. It may have been (in the words of Edward Talbot, who did so much to launch the college) a "little ugly white villa." But it was the start of something which was immensely significant for Oxford and beyond.

* I shouldn't end without saying goodbye to our head gardener, Ben Pritchard, who for so many years designed and/or maintained the trees, lawns, flower beds, herbs, hedges and waterways all around us. His departure has started a process to find a replacement, beginning with a survey about the gardens and how we use them. The poll showed how important the grounds are to students, tutors and staff alike. We wish Ben a long and happy retirement. Those of us on Instagram are watching his prodigious output of prints and can see that he is only notionally "retired". 

 

 

 

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