The first Foundation Year: a progress report
Our first intake from the Foundation Year has “graduated”. On a warm Saturday morning at the end of Trinity term they were presented with certificates by Sir Roger Bannister, once the fastest man on earth, who congratulated them all on being pioneers in an Oxford project which is making some waves in the city and beyond.
We started the year with 10 students, and we ended with 10. I emphasise that only because one or two sceptics thought we would be fortunate to find a group of students from under-represented backgrounds who would stay the course. They did, and every single one of them has grown immeasurably since last September.
The good news is that seven of the 10 will be starting as undergraduates at LMH next term – studying subjects as diverse as Maths, Music, English, Classical Archaeology and Ancient History, Law and Biochemistry. We know the three who, in the end, will be taking different courses elsewhere have found homes at good universities and have valued their time at Oxford.
Sir Roger, the first man to break the four minute mile in 1954, spoke inspiringly about success – but also on recovering from setbacks: he was expected to win a gold medal in the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, and suffered a barrage of abuse in the press when he “only” came fourth.
The students were accompanied by families and friends. We gave each a little book of memories of the past year. There was a cake celebrating "the pioneers" (pictured) It was a happy day. They then scattered from Oxford, some of them to do internships arranged by kind alumni and others who have watched the blossoming of the Foundation Year.
Our thoughts now turn to the next cohort of 10 students, due to arrive shortly. They, too, are inspiring group and we expect great things of them. Meanwhile, we are looking at the initial findings of an external evaluation project which is monitoring this pilot scheme over its four year life. The researchers are comparing it with the Trinity Access Programme at TCD, Dublin, which has been running for 18 years.
What have the academics discovered so far?
Our students, interviewed by the external evaluation team, spoke of the barriers some of them had experienced at school and how impossible the dream of an Oxford education seemed: “It’s like telling someone who is five foot two to reach something that is on top of a shelf that they can’t reach, and then asking someone who is six foot to reach it” said one student.
“Clearly that is kind of fair because they have to do the same thing but it’s not equity in the sense of that one person hasn’t got the same advantage as the other”
The LMH cohort felt under-confident to begin with, compared with similar TCD students: “I don’t have the same skill set because I haven’t been groomed the same way... to talk in a proper way, make conversation in a certain way,” said one.
But, a year in, the researchers found the self-esteem of the LMH cohort had jumped significantly. They were, overall, achieving good grades and found it easy to get on with other LMH students.
They appreciated the Oxford tutorial system: “ They don’t really teach you what to think but how to think,” said one. “In the tutorials you get more understanding about how you think because you have to justify why you think something.”
“My tutors have been so good to me,” said another, “and they understand that I am coming in with nothing, - about [subject area].”
“I feel so much more confident in the way that I can just go up to my tutors and professors and ask them any questions even though it might be a stupid question,” said a third.
They are certain their academic skills have improved and are far better equipped to write an essay or construct an argument.
Negatives? Well, the scheme is there to encourage young people from under-represented backgrounds. There has (purposely, on our side) not been a great deal of press coverage, but one article used the word “poor” in its headline, which stung one or two of the students. “I have never been more aware of my social standing until now,” said one.
It’s easy to sympathise with that. Oxford’s renewed attempts to accept more people from diverse backgrounds should change that – but it is, all agree, work in progress. The more students we can attract - and, eventually, admit - the less some future students might initially feel out of place.
Hats off to the first cohort....and now, with renewed gratitude for the alumni who have funded our pioneers, we look forward to the second...