A little over ten years ago, while still at Ruthin School in North Wales, my physics teacher at the time suggested I apply to a programme to spend one week of my summer holiday visiting a university. Clearly what every 16 year old boy wants to do over the summer holiday is go to extra lectures far from home; so my initial reaction was, shall we say, a little sceptical.
However, as it was coming up to the time that I would need to do my university admissions form (UCAS) I knew I should make a bit of an effort to go to open days and see some universities. That same teacher gave me some very, and perhaps surprisingly, honest advice. He told me that open days can be staged – with everything made to look its best, just briefly, just for one day. As soon as he said that a lot of things made sense. I remember back to many Saturdays when once a year we had been forced to come into school, where we did fun craft projects in geography or watched videos in history, so that parents could see everything in its best light. Yet here was one of my teachers telling me not to believe it – to go to a university and stay for a week, and to really scrutinise their whole operation. So I did.
I applied to a programme called Headstart, which works in a very similar way to the UNIQ courses that Oxford now runs themselves. They offer week-long residential open-days in science subjects at universities all over the country. They work on a kind of ballot system, so I applied putting down my interests and where I’d prefer to go. People that know me will be unsurprised to hear that in the summer of 2003 I got placed on the week for Materials Science at the University of Oxford hosted by St Catherine’s College.
The week itself was very good. I wouldn’t say fantastic or words like that because it wasn’t supposed to be a holiday down to Oxford. What it was everything that I needed it to be – a realistic experience of university, with mock lectures, labs, project work and even just a touch of homework. We slept in the college, we ate in the hall and we were lectured by the actual professors that deliver the undergraduate course. Later, when I was in 6th form at Yale College Wrexham (where I must acknowledge my very supportive chemistry teacher), and it was time to fill in my UCAS form I decisively put Materials at Oxford squarely at the top – and yes, I even put Catz down as my choice of college. The rest as they say is history…
You might ask what any of this has to do with the Northern Ireland Teachers Conference. Well that one piece of advice after class started me on what has been a 10 year (and counting) journey that has affected every facet of my life since. That is how important a good teacher can be and why I was pleased to volunteer to represent Materials Science, my college and Oxford at this conference.
Since matriculating to Oxford in 2005 I’ve clocked up well over 200 hours of various schools outreach activities, mostly open days and hosting residential courses. However these days, with the time needed for my research I’ve had to look for more focussed outreach events and the general open-day type activities are probably better delivered by younger undergrads as well. The opportunity to help out with a teachers conference then was perfect.It was really enjoyable to take part but also to watch. The full time admissions staff had such well prepared presentations with a lot of really useful statistics about every stage of the application and admissions process.
It was also great to be able to contribute to the conference and speak with the teachers. Aside from a mock-interview for computer science in front of 50 people (the less said about that the better) it was really pleasing to talk to the teachers about the sort of students they were putting forward for Oxbridge. Some said they were told by their schools they couldn’t put students forward unless they had 5 or 6 A* GCSEs. Well if that were true then I wouldn’t be here. In fact it was interesting to see the statistic that said that with my GCSEs there should only have been a 7% chance of getting into Oxford. Well 7 years, one MEng, and the better part of a doctorate later things aren’t going so bad I’d say.