As part of the ‘Pembroke North’ Access scheme, Ashton Sixth Form College has installed an antiquated room which emulates an Oxford don’s study. 

With its dark wood panels and shelves of books, it would not be surprising to glimpse Oxford’s dreaming spires from the window. However this ostensibly old-fashioned room is newly-built, created with the aim of making students in Greater Manchester feel more comfortable in Oxbridge surroundings and to encourage them to aspire towards it as a university destination. 

Originally the ‘Pem-Brooke’ scheme, a unique partnership between Bsix Brooke House Sixth Form in Hackney and Pembroke College, ‘Pembroke North’ is the Northern extension of Pembroke’s outreach programme.

As Cherwell reported, in 2012, Bsix spent £10,000 installing a similar room as part of the partnership. In 2013, 28 of its students went to Russell Group universities as opposed to 3 years earlier when just 5 students gained places.

Sam Thomas, who graduated last year from Ashton Sixth Form College and is now studying French with Italian at St John’s College, is supportive of the scheme. He remarked, “It’s a good idea. Looks aren’t everything, but being able to experience something visually similar to an Oxbridge interview will be helpful for applicants for whom the stereotypical ‘Don’s study’ is an alien environment.

“Having been to the UNIQ Summer School, I’d had more experience of that environment than most at Ashton Sixth Form College when I applied to Oxford, but I still found those ‘dark panelled walls and shelves crammed with books’ intimidating during my interviews. Without Access schemes like this – like UNIQ and Pembroke North – many would not consider applying in the first place.”

Summer Taylor, an LMH History undergraduate also sees the scheme in a positive light, arguing, ”It is not Oxford’s aim to ‘intimidate’ but to ‘challenge’. They want to get the best from you in the interview, but at the same time they want to sort the men from the boys, so if this replica helps interviewees with nerves then it’s a good thing. Let the challenge come from the dons, not the decor”.

However, some students have noted that the study isn’t the most efficient way to prepare for Oxford. For Liam Biser, a first-year studying PPE, the key to Oxford admission is found in “practising as many thinking skills assessment papers as possible”. Another first-year at Oriel pointed out that “personally, the best advice I received was to not be afraid of silence. It’s all too easy to keep talking without pausing to think about what you’re actually saying.”

The “Pem-Brooke” scheme is not just about re-creating the physical surroundings of Oxford but also the intellectual atmosphere.  Lecturers from Pembroke College and other top universities, such as Manchester, also give prospective applicants seminars and lectures as well as coaching pupils on approaching the entire admissions process.

For Emma Williams, a law undergraduate who was herself educated in Manchester, this is what is most important: “Most young people here have never experienced anything like an Oxford interview so it is daunting environment to be thrown into. However, it wasn’t the surroundings for me which made me nervous, but whether I could show my thought process and ideas in 20 minutes, so interview practice with someone from Oxford would have been incredibly helpful.”