Times Educational Supplement, 9 March 2012 (click image for PDF)

Peter Claus, senior research fellow in history at Pembroke College, Oxford, sits in his office. It features an antique desk, book-lined walls, a leather chesterfield and a large table where his students gather for seminars. Outside is a garden filled with neo-classical sculpture. And beyond the garden walls lies Hackney’s “murder mile”, otherwise known as Upper Clapton Road.

This is Claus’ other office, far from Oxford’s historic limestone quads, set up in a room at BSix Brooke House Sixth Form College (established 2002). Here, he typically spends three days a week teaching students who are applying for elite universities – Oxbridge and the rest of the Russell Group. They follow a programme intended to replicate as closely as possible a year of study in Oxford: kitting out the office to resemble a don’s rooms completes the illusion. It is known as the Red Room, and true to contrarian Oxbridge type, it is blue.
“It’s supposed to be like an Oxford office,” says Claus with a smile. “But it’s significantly better – the furniture is much higher quality.”

Claus has a dry, ironic manner, but about the Red Room and the programme of study that it hosts he is deadly serious, pursuing the aim of offering East End teenagers an intensive introduction to the way that Oxbridge works. He disputes a suggestion that there is an element of gimmickry to the set-dressing of the room. “This isn’t a stunt,” he says. “It’s much worse than that. We really are this mad.”

His commitment to creating opportunities for teenagers from poor backgrounds perhaps has its origin in his own roundabout route to a place in academia. Claus left school without A levels in the early 1980s and took up work on building sites, labouring and driving. In his twenties, he became a Labour councillor and he was encouraged to attend Ruskin College, the renowned Oxford-based adult residential college founded to provide university-standard education to the working class.

“It gave me a sense of the value of the tutorial system and intensive work with non-traditional students. And it made me absolutely convinced that you could take students from fairly low educational levels quite a long way,” he says. He tends not to refer to his background when working with the Hackney students. But he does say: “Teaching is an emotional and personal relationship, so inevitably it plays a part. It makes you recognise the opportunities of education, but also how it can shake your world.”

Subject focus

Claus met Ken Warman, the BSix principal, when he worked at the University of East London and Warman ran Tower Hamlets College’s sixth-form centre. As principal of BSix, Warman keeps volumes of Marx on the shelves of his office while encouraging the youth of inner-city London to immerse themselves in classical literature and history. (It was his idea to turn part of the college grounds into a “garden of the ancient world”, which explains why a statue of Hercules stands guard by Upper Clapton Road.)

The two collaborated on projects for Aimhigher, the government-funded programme to encourage progression to higher education, which closed last year. Both concluded that its work to improve access to higher education was both vital and insufficient. Together they hatched a plan to offer a much more ambitious project. Although universities spend more than £400 million a year on outreach programmes, they might see each of the hundreds of students who pass through their campus only once. Widening participation needed to be more than a day out, Claus and Warman believed.

“We showed them round magnificent buildings, everyone was very kind, the fellows wanted to teach. But the students didn’t really understand what their role was,” Claus says. “We felt it had to be much more intense, much more face to face, and much more academic and subject driven.”

Unfamiliarity breeds contentment

They also turned some of the ideology of widening participation on its head. Huge efforts are made to convince young people from poor backgrounds that Oxford and Cambridge are, despite all appearances, normal places.

Claus and Warman prefer to stress their unfamiliarity, and the sheer difficulty and challenge of applying. “One of the assumptions is that the more familiar it is, the more people will enjoy it. Our experience is that the more unfamiliar it is, the more they like it,” Warman says.

So the Red Room, with its donnish trappings, is intended to elicit a little bit of awe. “It does transport the kids when they come down the corridor and knock on the door: they just go, ‘Wow’,” says Claus. “It’s also a useful device: whatever you do elsewhere in college, that’s fine, but when you walk in here, you’re at university. They behave differently. Intimidated? I’d say challenged. I think they’re closely related.” Later, he confides a secret: at Oxford, he rarely bothers to wear suits. But for Hackney, he dresses to look the part.

Alongside this is a focus on the students’ subject of study, not on the appeal of the student lifestyle or the potential career benefits. “Students gel around their subjects,” Claus says. “In one seminar, on one side was a kid from India, and on the other one from Northern Ireland. What they had in common was an absolute passion for their subject. And at competitive universities, subject is king.”

One Russell Group university that the college worked with, which Claus and Warman decline to name, had to
be reprimanded for not demanding enough of the students. The college worries that anxiety over how universities will look to the Office for Fair Access will lead some to reduce their requirements for students from poorer backgrounds. “It’s going to be very tempting to say the widening participation figures are going to look awful and to lower the bar. We stand against that,” Claus says.

This year, the first that Claus has spent as “visiting fellow” at BSix, there are 25 students on the Pem-Brooke programme. (Other students join different Raising Aspirations programmes, such as a partnership with City University London for BTEC students in healthcare.) They are selected by interviews at Pembroke College, and need not even be enrolled at BSix: it is also open to local schools. Prior attainment is also not necessary – one of the first students on the programme had dropped out of school with no GCSEs. Two years later, he was studying history and politics at university having earned straight As.

The Michaelmas term – the programme follows Oxford’s naming convention for its eight-week terms – is taken up by applications and interviews, along with a project. Then in February, students and parents visit Pembroke together. “One student said she hadn’t been anywhere where she didn’t recognise one of her uncles on the street – she hadn’t been anywhere people weren’t related to her,” Claus says. “I don’t know what the educational effects of taking someone out of that are, but I think they’re good.”

A welcoming environment

The visit also shows that there still is a place at BSix for the more feel-good elements of widening participation: helping students from deprived backgrounds feel more at home at Oxbridge and reassuring parents that halal food is available. As Ian Power, the college’s raising aspirations officer, puts it: “They think it’s going to be full of stuffy professors, somewhere out of their comfort zone. They get there and realise it’s just old buildings and really bright people.”

In the spring – or Hilary – term, the tutorials begin in earnest, focusing on the Enlightenment since it encompasses such a broad range of subjects. (Like most historians, Claus believes that most subjects are really just history. Science, he admits, is beyond his reach, but collaborations with Clare College in Cambridge, York University and others bridge the gap.) The reading list includes Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Hume’s Essay on Miracles and Providence and the Romantic poets.

The year culminates in a residential summer school where the students juggle their reading and essay writing around lectures, theatre trips and tours of Oxford, simulating an Oxford undergraduate’s week, though perhaps with less time spent in the pub. Prizes are given to the students who perform best in essays and an exam.

“It’s an amazing opportunity,” says Asta Diabatè, an 18-year- old in her first year of A levels after moving from Villasanta in Italy. “Not many people get the chance to see how university life is without actually going there – experiencing it so I can see if it’s right for me.”

Luke Pearce, 16 and starting his AS levels, says he enjoys exploring his subject at a higher level without being tested or assessed, and that he feels less pressure. “It’s a different sort of pressure,” says Claus. “It’s pressure we put on ourselves to meet expectations,” Luke adds.

Three students this year have offers from Oxford or Cambridge, and places at Russell Group universities have risen fourfold. But is Pem-Brooke destined to be an eccentric one-off? Could more schools and colleges in deprived areas benefit from such a close collaboration with academics?

It requires an extraordinary commitment to spend so much time outside the university. But Claus, as a historian, takes the long view. He points out that it used to be common for academics to return to teaching in schools. Some of the undergraduates and postgraduates who support the programme are considering careers in schools or colleges; perhaps it could become common again.