Loreto College saw 21 students receive offers from Oxford and Cambridge this year, a success rate of 50%. John Harris revisits his old college to see what they are doing right
Dylan Fuller is 18 and from Stockport in Greater Manchester. His parents did not go to university: his dad is a taxi driver, and his mum is a school bursar. His GCSEs, he tells me, were “good, but not great”: one A* and five As. But at the end of his first year studying for A-levels, his AS grades – four As, in French, politics, English and history – sparked a realisation that with university applications looming, he could aim high.
Just before Christmas, he went for an interview for a place reading French at St Hugh’s College, Oxford. “When I got there, I was talking to people from Eton and Harrow, and places like that – and they’re not that different,” he tells me, as if it came as a slight surprise. He says he began his first formal interview feeling “surprisingly relaxed”, and managed to start a debate with the dons in charge about the functions of language. A few weeks later, he got an offer conditional on three As at A-level, which his teachers are confident he’ll get.
Fuller is a student at Loreto Sixth Form College, a Catholic institution located in the inner-city neighbourhood of Hulme, nudging the once-notorious district of Moss Side. This year, 21 of its students received offers from either Oxford or Cambridge, up from 16 in 2013 – which represented a success rate of 50%, as against a national average of around 20%. Just under a third of the successful students have parents who did not go to university, something that reflects the college’s student body: though Loreto’s high standards pull in students from all over Manchester and beyond, 57% of its students live in council wards officially classed as having high poverty levels, and more than a quarter receive government bursaries.
The college has strong links with the church that go back to its foundation in 1851, but 48% of its students are non-Catholic. Academically, its intake ranges from those with learning difficulties, through young people taking vocational courses, to the 85% of students studying level 3 courses who make it to university. At the last count, a quarter of Loreto alumni went to Russell Group institutions, a figure close to the top of national rankings.
It is routinely oversubscribed, but sets out pretty standard benchmarks for entry to A-levels: six GCSEs at A* to C including two of English, maths and science, two of which must be at least grade B. Moreover, as assistant principal Aidan Bruce puts it: “We do get people with very strong GCSEs, but we also take people on to A-levels who wouldn’t get on them in other parts of the city.” The education department’s value-added rankings, it is worth noting, place Loreto first among England’s sixth-form colleges.
There has been a run of stories bout education secretary Michael Gove’s beloved London Academy of Excellence, a highly selective sixth-form college run under the free schools programme and sponsored by a handful of private schools. This year, it got six students into Oxbridge. Loreto’s success story, by contrast, has happened in the context of what any outside observer would understand as comprehensive values.
Just over 25 years ago, I arrived at Loreto myself – liberated from the staid Cheshire suburbs, and thrilled to be in the company of around 1,200 other young adults (the student body now numbers around 2,800). It took me two attempts, but thanks to concerted help and advice, I eventually made it to Oxford. I had arrived at Loreto with pretty underwhelming exam results, but suddenly being a treated like a grown-up worked its wonders – and though no one talked about “value added”, I ended up with four As at A-level. Outwardly, the place has since changed beyond recognition – but within five minutes of arriving back, I sense a familiar mixture of pastoral care and a belief in high achievement, and get the impression this remains somewhere that young people start to discover who they are.
Loreto’s Oxbridge co-ordinator is Dr Tony Lyons, a 53-year-old Cambridge history graduate and computing teacher. “Like a lot of the students I work with, I was the first in my family to go to university,” he says. “I see so much talent … I want them to have the same chance I had, and I don’t want them to be put off by prejudice.”
When he took on the job in 2003, the college was getting between five and 10 of its students into Oxford and Cambridge each year. But in 2009, that number tumbled to only three – so he spoke to admissions tutors in both universities, and began to come up with a system to spot students’ potential and then work on the skills required.
At enrolment, any student with at least five A*s at GCSE now has a meeting with Lyons or one of his colleagues, and discusses their subject choices, so as to maximise their options. The college’s tutor groups – forms, in all but name, in which students spend time every morning, as well as doing periods of RE, general studies and “tutorial” work – include classes set aside for “high-calibre” students, in which they work on self-presentation and debating skills. And at the start of upper sixth, Oxbridge students are clustered in dedicated tutor groups to make the applications process easier to handle, and give them support networks among their peers.
In lower sixth, none of this is fixed: throughout students’ first year, and in the wake of AS results, Lyons is constantly scouting for potential Oxbridge candidates. “I’m looking for students who are working to a high standard. But it’s also about whether or not they’ve got some sparkle. It’s almost an intangible: by the time they get to upper sixth, I’m not that bothered about the student who has three As if that has just happened through graft. I’m interested in students who have a bit of passion or quirkiness about their chosen subject.”
The college works with Oxford and Cambridge, as well as the pro-access charity the Sutton Trust. It also organises joint activities with the nearby fee-paying Manchester Grammar, as well as using some of its staff for mock interviews – though Lyons says he has never looked into the approaches to Oxbridge used by private schools. One key lesson to be learned from the Loreto experience, he says, is that being overly directive is usually a bad idea: “Instead of saying, ‘Do this, and do that’, you sometimes have to let students come to you and say, ‘Look – this is what I’m interested in.’ It has to be driven by them.”
There is one other interesting element of some of Loreto’s Oxbridge work. The college’s network of feeder schools extends to the borough of Trafford, which retains selection at 11 – and given that Trafford’s grammar schools have their own sixth forms, many of the students who come to Loreto will have failed their 11-plus. From time to time, Lyons ends up correcting the consequences: in 2011, he tells me, “I had five students from Trafford who applied to Oxbridge. Two had failed the 11-plus, and three had passed. Of the two who failed, one’s at Oxford and one’s at Cambridge. And only one of the three who passed the 11-plus got in.”
Not without reason, then, Loreto sees itself as exactly the kind of institution that politicians who want social mobility and educational inclusion ought to be celebrating – and yet it is at the sharp end of dire cuts in funding to sixth-form colleges, at the same time as huge amounts are being directed towards the education secretary’s pet projects. Last week, the Sixth Form Colleges’ Association reckoned that England’s 93 sixth-form colleges had lost more than £100m in funding over the last three years, leading to subjects being scrapped and class sizes increasing – while £62m had gone on a mere nine free schools. It barely needs mentioning that the axing of education maintenance allowances – which once benefited more than half of Loreto’s students – is part of the same story. All told, Gove’s traditionalism perhaps leads him to fixate on schools that cater for 11- to 18-year-olds, while some of the country’s most successful institutions are overlooked (to compound their pain, unlike schools, sixth-form colleges must also pay VAT).
For Loreto’s principal, Ann Clynch, all this is a huge issue. “In the context of increased student numbers, we’ve lost a lot,” she says. “That’s a concern, but at the same time, I have to be realistic. What I struggle with is this: why, when you’ve got colleges like Loreto – large, inner-city, successful, doing the social mobility thing – are we spending money on small sixth forms in academies and free schools with sixth forms?”
Though she says she supports Gove’s drive for social mobility, and such policies as his prioritisation of single-subject science GCSEs, she has one other big complaint: the looming separation of AS- and A-levels, which Cambridge has said will have a negative impact on widening access to elite universities. “I would ask Mr Gove: can he reconsider that?” says Clynch. “AS-levels are a great motivator to students, and they work as an indicator to teachers and universities. We have internal exams, but an external AS is a huge thing, and it has been really important in contributing to our results.”
Over the next hour or so, I meet four more successful Oxbridge applicants: three young women respectively from Droylsden, Ashton-Under-Lyne and Prestwich – and 19-year-old Ali Ahsan Khalid, a refugee from Pakistan who came to the UK after his father was murdered in the midst of religious persecution, and settled with his family in Salford.
He now has an offer to study medicine at Cambridge. “From the very first day, people here asked me if I wanted to apply, and I had the support,” he says, still looking rather amazed. “So coming here mattered a lot.”