Oxford’s community: life beyond the spires

'Being a student at Oxford means you are a member of more than just the university; you are a member of a diverse community in an amazing city.' Luca Webb, President of Oxford Hub project Schools Plus, calls for student tutors at a time in which the effects of Covid-19 are exacerbating issues of educational inequality.

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Students from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds are twice as likely to be low performers. Think about that for a moment. Sometimes at Oxford it’s easy to forget that educational inequality is a problem that stretches far beyond access to our own university. In fact, it stretches right across our education system and deep down into our schools. So much so that 40% of disadvantaged pupils in schools in England fail to reach a GCSE standard pass mark of a grade 4 in Maths. It shouldn’t be this way. Moreover, as Oxford students, we have real power to change this, beginning on our own doorstep.

The City of Oxford is known to people across the globe as a centre of world-class learning. Even when thinking about schools, the city appears to be a hub of renowned independent institutions. It’s only when you travel just beyond the cobbled streets that you begin to realise that there are also schools in areas of Oxford with high levels of socio-economic deprivation. In these schools, there are students with huge educational potential which too often is not unlocked. To many, the dreaming spires of our university indicate a different, unattainable world just down the road from their own lives and community. Look beyond these spires, beyond our colleges and suddenly, and a deep educational divide reveals itself in our beloved city.

Oxford Hub – a registered charity specialising in community-led change tackling a range of social and environmental issues­–have looked beyond the college walls for nearly 14 years, creating opportunities for people to participate and develop meaningful relationships in the Oxford community through volunteering or taking part in development programmes.

Schools Plus is an Oxford Hub project which aims to challenge educational inequality. It places university students as tutors in schools across Oxford city with indicators of disadvantage, such as a high proportion of students on Pupil Premium, in a bid to tackle educational inequality. The projects run across a range of subjects from KS1 Reading and Writing to A Level Psychology, and tutors volunteer for one hour a week to support pupils in their learning. But much more than this, tutors offer passion, enthusiasm and knowledge of their subjects beyond the narrow confines of an exam syllabus. To work with an Oxford student as a positive role model has real power to raise pupils’ aspirations about learning and higher education.

Now, more than ever, pupils need our support. With schools closed, the current coronavirus crisis has intensified existing educational inequality. Some pupils are fortunate enough to receive plenty of support with their studies at home, but many are not so lucky. This is an environment which, we can all agree, is challenging to work in, but this pandemic does not affect us all equally. According to the LSE, ‘in the first week of home schooling, pupils from middle class homes were twice as likely to be taking part in daily live or recorded lessons as those from working class households.’ 

Over the vacation, Schools Plus swiftly adapted to coordinate a digital version of our services. Imogen Runswick-Cole, Projects Officer at Oxford Hub and the staff member in charge of the project explains that “Our aim was that no child in Oxford City should have to miss out on their education during school closures due to Covid-19. The response we had from students was amazing, and volunteers have been busy creating and sharing online teaching content, educational games for young children and providing 1-1 online tutoring support.  Schools Plus Online is part of Oxford Hub’s ‘Oxford Together’ programme, a volunteer programme to help those in need during Covid-19. Oxford Hub is delivering Oxford Together in collaboration with Oxford City Council and other local aid groups.”

Getting involved with Schools Plus or other projects with the Oxford Hub immediately bursts that Oxford bubble and can help students become more engaged with their local community. Stepping over that boundary between ‘town and gown’ through social action is, in the words of volunteer Verity, ‘a great way to feel more integrated and at home within the city.’ But the impact of giving your time to help others is not restricted to those receiving the support. Tutoring is a real privilege and it’s so rewarding in just a few weeks to see students gain confidence in their own ideas and talk about their ambitions for the future. Volunteer Nadia, who was lucky enough to receive similar tutoring herself during her GCSEs, says that ‘sometimes the pupil knows what to do but has trouble understanding the wording of the question, which makes them feel anxious or stressed. Being able to help them resolve their worries and see their great progress is heart-warming.’

Being a student at Oxford means you are a member of more than just the university; you are a member of a diverse community in an amazing city. Yet within that community, we students undoubtedly occupy a privileged position thanks to the educational opportunities we receive. So, during these anxious times, when you’re struggling to find that elusive online resource or sneakily trying to google the answer during your virtual tutorial, remember that there are pupils who want to learn and may not get a chance to.  If you can, give something back to your Oxford community this Trinity.

To support Schools Plus and Oxford Hub you can:

– Volunteer your time by completing this form to support secondary schools or this form to support primary schools. 
– Donate to Oxford Together, and help us support more people across Oxford: bit.ly/oxtogether

-Follow Oxford Hub and Schools Plus Oxford on Facebook and Instagram to like and share the word.