This term began with the welcome news that 72.6% of our offers for UK undergraduate places have gone to pupils from state schools.
This figure has risen from 61.5% last year. This is just one year’s number, and there is much more work to do, but I feel encouraged that our message is being heard.
Somerville began as a college that widened access to Oxford. We were founded for women and were the first non-denominational college here.
I know that we cannot, single-handedly, transform the inequality that runs through Britain, including our school system. But I am determined to move rapidly on widening access to Somerville.
One big success this academic year was the Demystifying Oxford Day, a day of interview preparation held in November for state school applicants.
The day featured mock interviews with current students and an explanation of the purpose of an Oxbridge interview – which aims to show your potential rather than test what knowledge you have acquired. Out of shortlisted candidates who attended this event, over half were made offers.
One of the other initiatives we are looking at is to offer more support to teachers. This might mean our academics working with teachers to enhance subject knowledge, as well as asking teachers if they are willing to act as ambassadors for Somerville and Oxford.
We already work closely with schools, but I feel sure that there is more we can do to build a teacher network that will encourage more strong candidates to apply, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
I also want to turn the spotlight on ourselves, and ask how we should change the culture of Somerville and Oxford to ensure that we are welcoming to all. One of our students told me of her bemusement at being served an octopus terrine at the Freshers’ Dinner.
I’m sure the cephalopod dish was delicious, but it might not be quite right for everyone. I have asked our catering colleagues to ensure that the first dinner at the beginning of term features dishes everyone is comfortable with.
I am struck by a story that one of my colleagues at the museum told, about a visit by a group of Muslim girls to our current exhibition ‘Represent! Voices 100 years on’. They watched the maiden speeches of two of our women MPs, Rushanara Ali and Shabana Mahmood. I’m told that one girl cried, saying: “I did not realize there was a place for people like me in Parliament.”
That is the message that I want everyone to hear. If you have the potential, then there is a place for people like you at Somerville, no matter what background you come from.