An undergraduate is lying motionless and face down on Pembroke College’s second quad, utterly insensible to the prods, shakes and occasional jeers of the small crowd of onlookers that has gathered around him to gawk in the afternoon sun. No! This is not the aftermath of a pre-term lashathon, or the result of a morning spent practicing for the Royal Wedding drinking game; this is ‘Murder in the Cloisters’, a pioneering outreach programme in which sixty14-15 year olds, picked because their parents did not attend university, spend three days at the University trying to solve the murder of Pembroke’s JCR President, the man lying dead under the lengthening shadow of the college chapel.

This may all seem a bit gimmicky, but graduate assistant and Dphil chemist Henry Fisher explains that the murder mystery story provides a framework in which the children can sample a wide range of subjects as they examine the evidence, ‘It’s a cover for the academic sessions that actually go into it. It makes it more entertaining to be in a chemistry lab pretending to solve a crime, or learning a new language so you can decipher a secret message.’

The children also get a chance to learn about some of the social aspects of University life, as the suspects – actually the Oxford Imps in varying degrees of disguise – are questioned about their activities by ‘Inspector Brown’ and observed scoffing a formal dinner, during which a second character is poisoned (presumably on purpose, although Pembroke’s hall food does have a certain reputation…). 

From what I’ve seen, the idea works rather well. There were certainly a lot of laughs from the group, and the young people I talked to were quite evidently enjoying themselves immensely – they even seemed to be taking the thing quite seriously, bar a few shouts of ‘I saw him twitching!’ and ‘Give him a kick!’. The Imps themselves do a sterling job, with a barrage of ridiculous accents and energetic lamentations they make the whole thing come alive, whilst still managing subtly to insert (age appropriate) details about student life and studying. Andrew McCormack was particularly entertaining as a creepy academic with a little too much attachment to the deceased JCR President.

The University-run scheme is funded by Aim Higher South East and by the Oxford Young Ambassadors programme, both set up with the intention of motivating students from non-academic or other under-represented backgrounds to go into higher education. Such innovative tactics for attracting students from these sorts of backgrounds are all the more important in light of David Cameron’s recent damning comments on the underachievements of the University of Oxford’s access scheme, and the government’s stated desire for universities such as Oxford that will charge the maximum tuition fee to ‘earn’ the right to demand £9000 a year by improving their intake from state schools and the underprivileged.

Indeed, as part of the Oxford Young Ambassador programme (which follows students for up to three years as they approach the end of their secondary education), a group including some of the children here at the ‘murder scene’ are being coached in public speaking with the intention of delivering a speech or presentation to the Prime Minister later in the year describing their experience of Oxford’s access programme.

The only area for concern is that, whilst the stated goal of Aimhigher is to encourage students to seek higher education in general, this experience is, of course, very Oxford-centric. During the interrogation of the suspects there were references to bops, rowing regattas, JCR and Union politics and other aspects of university life rarely experienced outside of Oxford or Cambridge. The inclusion of a formal dinner amongst the social activities of the characters adds further to this unavoidable narrowing of the university life portrayed (not to mention the surroundings and accommodation in which the students find themselves).

Although it is to be hoped that many of those attending the residential programme will go on to achieve places at Oxford or other institutions of similar reputation, for many of them it is likely to lead to disappointment, or at least surprise, when they find that their universities do not conform to the standards they have been led to expect. However, if, as seems to be the case, children who would not have applied to further study are inspired by the experience of solving this ‘Murder in the Cloisters’ to do so, it has achieved its aim, taking a small step towards solving the real crime that is social segregation within the education system.