Trinity’s Schools Liaison Officers, Terri-Leigh Riley and Ellie Wood were the first in their families to go to university and had little help from their schools in applying to Cambridge. They’re passionate about widening access for less-advantaged students.
I’m a part-time MPhil student and full-time Schools Liaison Officer at Trinity College, and I did my undergraduate degree at Sidney Sussex. It’s disheartening to see the two Colleges closest to me criticised for the admission of disadvantaged students. While these stats are important, and I’m thankful that the research was done, I think the real picture is much more nuanced and complex.
My home postcode by Polar4 is in quintile 1, so I would have been a student in that small percentage cited. I have worked in outreach and access for both Colleges, and seen from the inside their commitment to widening participation at every level. As Access Officer at Sidney, I organised events with full support of the College. For the past four years at Trinity, we’ve run numerous residential visits to the College in different subjects, toured the country with Fellows and PhD students to give Cambridge teaching sessions in schools, hosted countless school visits to Trinity, and visited dozens of schools all over the UK.
At Trinity, we regard College choice as an entirely personal decision. While it is wonderful when students we’ve worked with apply to Trinity, which they do every year, at no stage do we ‘push’. This year has been our best by far for students we’ve worked with applying to Trinity.
While it’s so exciting to see familiar names flooding in, I often remind myself that’s not the purpose of my job. I am proud to work for a College that does not regard widening participation as simply a recruitment exercise for Trinity. I believe that the other Cambridge Colleges work on the same principle.
One of the most important things we do is to give A-Level choice guidance to Year 10 and 11 students. Far too many students receive little or no advice, thereby unknowingly cutting themselves off from top universities. While this work is very unlikely to have any tangible benefit to Trinity in terms of applications, it makes a life-changing difference to the school students concerned.
The A-Level choices issue is particularly important to me because students at my old school were channelled into vocational qualifications; I ended up doing A-Levels by chance because I liked academic subjects, but had to do a whole extra year because my subject combinations were not suitable. I went to my local comprehensive school in Jarrow, near Newcastle, which at the time had a pass rate of just 23% and was deemed inadequate for most of the time I was there. I didn’t get any A*s at GCSE, though was still in the top five in my school, and wrote off going to a top university at first.
After moving to St Joseph’s RC Comprehensive School in Hebburn for Sixth Form, I started researching universities and found the Cambridge website very encouraging – it said that GCSEs were viewed in context, which gave me the confidence to apply, despite my GCSE results.
I regularly go back to both my schools to speak to the students and to encourage them to think about Cambridge and other leading universities, including volunteering for a progressive programme with FutureFirst, a charity that links up the most disadvantaged schools nationally with their alumni.
I am so grateful for the opportunities and experiences I’ve had through Cambridge University, and through Trinity and Sidney Sussex in particular. I have loved being here, to the point of finding it very difficult to leave!
I came to Cambridge from Yate, in South Gloucestershire, the first person in my family to go to university, and the first from my school to go to Oxbridge – then it was the worst-performing school in the county. At the time, I was only one of a handful of people going to university at all; of my Year 11 cohort of about 100, less than 10 of us went on to uni.
When doing my A-Levels I did the Access to Southampton scheme but never took part in any Cambridge outreach activities. I did visit on an open day – this was prompted by a chance remark from one of my teachers asking if I’d looked at Oxford or Cambridge. I would never have done this without his suggestion.
I would have loved the opportunity to have taken part in the events that are run across Cambridge but I assume my school was not aware of them. They didn’t suggest anything like the Sutton Trust either. During the application process, I had to explain things like the Uniform Mark Scheme to my teachers, and how the process worked, which I worked out from my own online research.
When I got to Cambridge to study languages, I quite quickly felt at home, but wanted to see more people from my kind of background getting the same opportunities.
I always think back to the moment that one teacher mentioned Oxbridge to me, because there are so many kids out there who don’t even have that.
My experience of studying at Cambridge afforded me so many more opportunities than I would have had elsewhere, particularly with regard to the financial aid and travel grants which were key as a languages student. It was a big relief both for me and my parents to be so well-supported during my time as a student. It was also such a different experience to school, being surrounded by like-minded and motivated students who really loved their subjects.
I got involved with access work quite quickly, and was elected JCR Access Officer in my first year at Newnham. I’ve been involved with many widening participation and related projects ever since.
I wanted to become a Schools Liaison Officer because I felt it was a great way to use my own experiences to help give back and encourage those from backgrounds like mine to consider leading universities such as Cambridge, and to show them it is absolutely a place for them.
I go back as often as I can to my old school and let them know about various outreach opportunities, not only in Cambridge but also at other leading universities. I did a talk at my school with Year 11 in September. The faces of the students when I said I used to go there was a picture!
I am writing this from Yate now – I’m here for an event at a local college to which all schools are invited. Several students from my old school came and one told me my talk in September had got her interested in going to uni, when previously she hadn’t ever considered it.
The challenges are many, not just about students getting the grades – there are plenty of bright people out there – but of convincing students that they are good enough and that Cambridge is the place for them. This also applies to ensuring students have the information to be able to make an informed decision, and a decision that is right for them, whether that be choosing Cambridge, or alternative routes and destinations. Also, engaging teachers and schools so that they are aware of the outreach opportunities and understand the admissions process is extremely important, and can have a long-term impact on generations of students.