Elizabeth Pears, Contributor
BRITAIN'S TOP universities are reaching out to black and minority ethnic young people with a conference to encourage them to consider a future at Oxford or Cambridge.
The move is a response to a campaign led by Labour's former higher Education Minister David Lammy who specifically challenged Oxford on why so few black students were offered places.
As a result, the university has renewed efforts to increase its outreach work to help make the prestigious institution more accessible.
Figures show that black pupils are the least likely to apply. Now Oxford, Cambridge and Harvard have partnered with Kingsway International Christian Centre (KICC) for a second annual Breaking Educational Barriers: The Open Door conference later this month, an education event open to the entire community.
KICC members Theresa Esan MBE, director of employability and employer engagement at City and Islington College, Donna Thomas, an early years service manager, and Yemisi Akindele, founder of award-winning supplementary High Achievers Tutoring, are spearheading the initiative.
Not just church community
Project leader Pastor Ade D'Almeida said: "This conference is not just about our church community. This is a group of people who have the experience, but also a passion to help young people succeed.
He added: "We felt the conference should not only offer practical advice for parents and pupils on routes into top universities but be inspirational too, and instill a desire to achieve higher. There is something compelling about hearing stories of those who have been to Oxbridge and Harvard. It makes something you thought you could never do become more achievable."
D'Almeida said that part of their task was to educate African and Caribbean parents and address a "knowledge gap" that could be holding their children back. One key area was a tendency to push their children towards oversubscribed courses such as medicine or law that are already fiercely competitive.
"We want parents to realise that if your child has an enquiring mind and aims for excellence, then they can study anything," she explained.
"Parents really need to start with their children as young as nursery, helping them to make the right choices and not relying on the old-style form of parenting and dictating what subject they should pursue. They have to keep abreast with the changes happening in education and society. It's also important to let parents know that not all children can be Oxbridge candidates. There are other universities and other routes to a successful career and we want to show parents what they are."
She told The Voice that following last year's conference a young student tried a taster subject in linguistics at Oxford, which opened his eyes to other opportunities. He now plans to take up Oriental studies instead of maths. "It was a brilliant session," said D'Almeida.
"He saw potential in things he had never considered before and that's a success to us." Last week, as part of this newspaper's Big Question series, we investigated why black children remain one of the lowest-performing ethnic groups.
This is one of the challenges preventing black students from winning places at Oxford. In 2010-11, only five per cent of black students achieved the necessary three As at A-level. In 2009, only one black Caribbean candidate was accepted for undergraduate study out of a total 27 black students. In 2010, this rose to seven black Caribbean out of a total of 20.
It is a reflection of statistics that show that black Caribbean pupils are significantly outperformed by their black African counterparts.
Look for the best students
Dr Cressida Ryan outreach officer at Merton College, University of Oxford, said: "We can't change someone's grades but what we can do as a university is work with younger age groups to inspire them to go after those three As and put in support structures to help get them there. If you want the best students, you have to look for them."
She said working with KICC was a good way to reach the students most under-represented at Oxford. "Working with individuals and schools is not as effective as working with an entire community of parents, teachers and community leaders as they all have a role to play in supporting a child's education. At the conference, we will talk about subject choice, what careers they can lead to and issues around finance."
In 2011, Oxford admitted 32 black students - the highest number in more than a decade. Tottenham MP David Lammy said: "The figures are encouraging but we need 10 years of this not just one. My concern with Oxford and Cambridge was that not only were the best black students not getting in, but that the universities didn't seem particularly bothered about it. Their access teams were visiting places like Eton and Marlborough College rather than getting to schools in Moss Side, Sparkbrook or Hackney."
He praised the university for its boost in outreach work, adding: "The partnership between KICC and Oxford looks promising and I know there are also projects taking place in Tottenham that I have been involved in too. These interventions can be life-changing for the people involved but they inevitably reach only a handful of the thousands of talented black boys and girls out there."
Oxford made headlines in 2011 when US First Lady Michelle Obama joined schoolgirls from inner London state school Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, at Christ Church College, Oxford, for an inspirational visit. Speakers at the event include KICC Senior Pastor Matthew Ashimolowo, Dr Ryan and Dr Tony Sewell.