Oxbridge Admissions

I’m writing this on my own authority; as someone who went to Oxford from a state comprehensive and state funded sixth form college and as someone with some level of expertise in access on the basis of disability, from my professional life. The detail of what I’m writing centres on Oxford, because that’s where my knowldge originates.

I’m reminded of the economics thing of “supply side” and “demand side”. Much of the work people are trying to do around Oxbridge admissions seems to be concentrated on persuading potential students they should accept what Oxbridge offers and this work has a place, but it’s only part of the story. Oxbridge has to look very closely at itself and start to adapt to become more attractive to a wider range of students.

At the moment, Oxford is not an attractive choice, compared to living in their current home (or at least home town) and going to a local university for many students from “non-traditional” backgrounds.

Language is culture and region specific and different terms mean different things to different people. Calling a sit down evening meal “supper” when that’s a usage of a term associated with a particular social class and fairly unfamiliar outside it is alienating, even though nobody would be intending the usage to be alienating. It doesn’t matter that the usage might be obvious from the context to an intelligent potential applicant; the point is the universities should be trying to meet people half way by trying to avoid this sort of loaded terminology.

So one thing, Oxbridge could do that might help is to arrange for different groups of people to test the materials they produce aimed at prospective applicants, looking for language use that is strongly associated with particular classes or regions and working out alternatives.

Another thing it could do is provide an easily accessible glossary. I had no idea what “lounge suit” meant when I started at Oxford in 1999. I didn’t really have internet access until I went to Oxford, and back then we didn’t really have search engines the way we do now (I think someone showed me how to use Alta Vista at some point, but it was most usual in those days to go to websites you already knew about via bookmarks/typing the address into the address bar).

Course structure

Some people get on better with courses with a bigger dissertation/thesis element and others with an exam element. Some people will do better with Oxford style finals where there’s an opportunity for your learning to coalesce as a whole before you sit exams. Other people will prefer courses where exams are taken more frequently.

Oxford’s slavish adherence to heavy reliance on finals is really unhelpful when thinking about attracting students from different backgrounds.

Very few Oxford courses can be taken part time. This is a barrier for disabled students, students who are carers, some students who are parents and other students who want to study whilst working. It is all the more annoying because the tutorial system certainly for arts, humanities and social sciences lends itself to flexibility. Individual or paired tutorials can be arranged at mutually convenient times with tutors. Lectures are optional and are often not well attended, as many of the people who get on with that style of learning are happier to learn by solitary reading / working with others from their College informally to discuss what they’ve read. [I accept that lab sessions for those taking science based subjects require a bit more thought, but that’s no reason to not provide for arts based subjects]

Oxford’s insistence on designating part-time students differently, in its documentation and on their library cards is part of the problem. Institutionally it sees part-time students as different to full time students.

The term structure needs to be reconsidered. The theory is that three eight week terms (with up to another week at the beginning of each term to allow for mock exams known as Collections to be taken) allows for periods of concentrated work, with the vacations free to take up paid work. For some students this works well. For those with extensive caring commitments for disabled relatives, those parenting young children and those who are disabled, this may be a less helpful model. It might be more helpful to them to spread the work out over ten or twelve week terms. Even if lectures remained concentrated in the eight weeks of full term, spreading tutorials and other small group teaching out would be likely to assist people to have a more even work/study/life balance.


The “standard” offering of accommodation is of a room within a College or nearby for two or three (or four) years of an undergraduate course. Rooms are single occupancy and very often have to be vacated during the vacations to enable Colleges to use them for conference guests who generate useful income.

Accommodation does not often come with kitchen facilities adequate for proper self catering, because the assumption is that students will eat many meals in Hall. Halls vary in their ability to cater for students who don’t eat a “standard English” diet. Vegetarians will be OK and I suspect catering staff are getting to grips with catering for students who require gluten free food but where the problem is that somebody’s diet centres around dishes from a non-English culture, the food that’s on offer will be unfamiliar and not a shared cultural thing.

In my view, there needs to be more accommodation available throughout the year to better accommodate students who don’t live with family members, including those who are formerly Looked After Children, international students, disabled students, students bringing family members with them and so on. This needs to be accommodation in self contained flats/houses, that can be occupied 365 days per year, with a sensible sized kitchen for the number of occupants.

Where this cannot be provided by individual Colleges, there should be consideration given to helping students find privately rented accommodation and using some of the available financial support to off-set their additional costs.

In addition, the peculiar, paternalistic rule, that undergraduates at Oxford must live within six miles of Carfax Tower (in the middle of Oxford City Centre) should be repealed. The University and its Colleges have no business dictating where students live and the rule contributes to the very high cost of private rental accommodation in the area. [I am aware that it is possible to apply for exemptions to the rule; the point I am making is that it is access barrier to have this as a rule at all]

Also to be considered; there are good environmental reasons to use cars less, but it is very difficult indeed to keep a car in Oxford as an undergraduate student living in College, unless you have a Blue Badge. For some people their car is essential to enable them to fulfil their caring or other responsibilities and the available public transport options aren’t a good substitute.


Students are often discouraged from accepting part time work during term time (in the context of there being three eight week terms during the year and an expectation that an undergraduate degree should be treated like a full time job for those 24 weeks).

Some bursaries and other funds may be available on application – but there is a problem with certainty here that affects people’s ability to budget.

In addition, it is not unusual for Colleges to effectively impose costs on students with an assumption that there’s money for these things eg. ball tickets can be expensive (say £60-£100+ for one night) and where balls are taking place in College, students who are living there can find themselves forced out of their own room for the night or effectively locked in and unable to leave (whilst quite possibly unable to sleep due to the noise).

This sort of thing needs to be thought about as does the price of things like matriculation photographs and the cost of buying clothes to satisfy “lounge suit” and “black tie” dress codes.

Partners and children

There are perfectly good reasons why young children need to be supervised, but Colleges are not always welcoming to students’ children – this should be an easy thing to fix. The same is true for partners – Colleges should be welcoming to the people who support students.

How to pick a mainstream school for a disabled child or one with special educational needs

This post is about questions to ask and other things to consider when thinking about a state funded mainstream school for a disabled child or a child who has special educational needs.

It doesn’t cover special schools (whether state funded or independent).

To my mind there are three important things to consider when looking at potential schools:

  1. The physical environment
  2. The attitude of the school / individual senior members of staff
  3. The stability of the senior leadership team within the school.

Looking at them individually

Physical environment

At some level this one is obvious; you want a school with a site that is accessible to your child and also to you.

For some children, this means picking a modern building with level access so it is safe for them to use mobility aids.

For some children it means good contrast and use of lighting and tactiles to make the site somewhere they can navigate independently

For some children it means classrooms and other spaces that are acoustically really good, with very limited background noise.

For other children it means having a playground with spaces designed for quiet play or a school where there is well designed space for 1:1 work with a Speech and Language Therapist or specialist teacher.

For others again, it might mean a school site that is comparatively small, so it is less fatiguing for them to navigate, but for others a large, rural site, with space to run and comparatively little noise is better.

For others it might mean a school site that’s particuarly secure, in the sense of it being physically difficult for a child to leave the site just by running off. Most of the time schools are secure to stop unwanted visitors getting in, rather than to stop anybody leaving.

A visit to the school site should enable you to get a reasonable “feel” for how good the physical environment would be for your child as the school is at present.

This can be trickier where you don’t know the full extent of your child’s difficulties as well as in cases where there is reasonable potential for their presentation to deteriorate.

In some cases arranging for an Occupational Therapist or a Acoustician or a Qualified Teacher of the Visually Impaired to visit your top choice(s) of schools is a good move, because they are likely to be able to advise on the work that would need to be done to make the school site suitable for your child.

For children who are disabled, but who don’t have special educational needs (they have different definitions and it is possible to fall into one category but not the other), the mechanism to force the school to accommodate your child is via their duties under the Equality Act not to discriminate against disabled pupils, including their duty to make reasonable adjustments.

In nearly all cases where you would want early input from an OT, Acousician or QTVI, it will be for a child who has special educational needs (in addition to any disability) and probably one where your child will have an EHCP or you are in the process of assessment for one and it will be possible for the adaptations to be included within the EHCP that the LA will be required to fund.

The law provides an almost absolute right to a mainstream education for any child, no matter the cost. This does not extend to a right to a particular school – meaning that where a child would need very expensive adjustments to be made to school A, but school B would need substantially less expensive adjustments, the LA can refuse to place the child at school A. For this reason, it’s usually worth visiting all of the schools within a reasonable travelling distance for your child. The totality of the respective costs of the placements would be considered and sometimes a school might have higher “one off” costs and lower ongoing costs – if say, your child would need less TA support in that school compared with the other one.


Attitudes to disability and special educational needs vary considerably. It is not possible for teachers to have a detailed knowledge of rare conditions and it will be necessary for them to learn about how your child’s condition specifically affects them. But it is often possible to get an indication of how the school approaches these issues. Some questions you might like to ask are:

  • Do you reward children for attending school?
  • If so, how do you adjust your awards system so that it is fair for disabled children (who are likely to have medical appointments during school hours and some of whom may be more prone to illness)?
  • How do you support children to carry on learning when they’ve missed a lot of school due to ill health?
  • What’s the school uniform?
  • How do you accommodate children with tactile processing problems, who struggle with the feel of typical school clothing?
  • How do you accommodate children who have been prescribed specific shoes?
  • What’s your bullying policy?
  • How do you deal with bullying that centres around a child being disabled?
  • What’s your behaviour policy?
  • What adjustments have you made to your behaviour policy to accommodate individual disabled pupils?
  • How do you support children who become overwhelmed with anxiety in school?
  • How do you support children who are made anxious by school and are at risk of school refusing?

More generally, think about the tone and content of the responses you’re getting. Teaching staff do sometimes seem to be dismissive of family concerns and questions. The school you want is likely to be one where more than one member of staff is either already knowledgeable or, if not, open to learning and receptive to your input and that from other professionals eg. an Educational Psychologist, Speech and Language Therapist and so on.


Teachers and school support staff move jobs for the same reasons as everyone else. They also take maternity/adoption leave and at times are too unwell to be at work. It is unrealistic to expect your child will be able to go to a school where there are no staff changes.

What it is worth looking for is a reasonable degree of stability within the senior leadership team at the school. My experience of this has been with specialist independent schools, but the same principle applies – where there is rapid change in the senior team or where there is a lot of staff turnover (higher than you’d expect for the location), it is likely that knowledge and experience are being lost. Additionally, it may indicate that the staff are generally unhappy / there is a problem with the school’s management and where this is the case, it is unlikely to be providing the best education it could.

Other factors to consider

Unit provision – some mainstream schools have attached Units specialising in a particular disability eg. Autism, Speech and Language, Moderate Learning Difficulties, where the children spend some of their time in mainstream lessons and some of their time in the Unit being taught in smaller groups. Some Units are very good, others are OK and even some of the ones that are good may not be right for your child. It’s always worth asking enough questions to get an idea of the timetable for the children in the Unit – in some cases they are expected to be in mainstream lessons for everything other than English and Maths and your child’s SEN may mean that model of provision won’t work for them.

Ofsted Reports (or equivalents for independent schools)- these are always worth reading, but bear in mind that at the moment some schools that are graded as “Outstanding” haven’t been inspected for ages and may have changed over time. An Ofsted inspection is in some ways still a snapshot of how a school is on the day(s) it is inspected and some schools will take extensive steps to present their best possible image on the day – ie. arranging school trips for the “naughtiest” children, provoking children into behaving in ways that justify a temporary exclusion for the days of the inspection.

Any published assessment results – eg. GCSE data for secondary schools and progress data for Key Stage 2 for primary schools, is worth looking at.

Wraparound care – does the school offer this? Can you find any local childminders or other providers of childcare who deliver to and collect from that school?

Travelling time / method – is the school walkable from home? Cycleable? Wheelable? Some children will be entitled to LA funded transport due to their SEN, disability or distance from the school, but it’s still worth considering how your child might get to and from the school each day and the potential length of the journey.

For each of the schools you are considering you want to know its status ie. LA maintained or Academy, because this affects your routes for complaint if your child attends the school and you have a problem of a sort that does not lend itself to a claim for disability discrimination. You have more routes for complaint if your child attends an LA maintained school than an Academy.

Usually, the easiest place to start gathering general information about a number of schools is the Get Information About Schools Service

Some schools have a religious character or affiliation. You want to know what this is and to assess through your interaction with the school how compatible the school’s ethos is with your family’s situation. Sometimes schools with a religious affiliation are very good at accommodating children who come from families that don’t share that religious background. Sometimes schools without a formal religious affiliation have a close relationship with a church (nearly always this is a problem with churches rather than synagoges or mosques) that is overly forceful in its presentation of one faith tradition.

Often families end up having to compromise over a school that reflects their faith background vs one that caters well for their child’s disability. You can withdraw a child from participation in collective worship in school and also from RE lessons (though RE lessons should be about understanding religions rather than worship).

Is my child “ready” for school?

The simple answer to this is that it’s the wrong question to be asking. Education has to adapt to meet the needs of the child, not the other way round. A child with Severe Learning Difficulties has the same right to an education matched to their developmental level as a typically developing child.

The more nuanced answer to the question involves thinking about what the school tells you they are expecting of their four year olds in Reception classes and working out what your child can do, what, if anything, they can reasonably be specifically taught to do and what they can’t do for which the school will need to adjust its practices to accommodate your child’s disability. It may be your thinking leads you to the conclusion that your child might have special educational needs and that you need to make a request for an EHC Needs Assessment.

Most of what is talked about as “school readiness” involves self care and the skills for learning as part of a group.

Thinking in broad domains:


Can your child sit? Do they need specialist seating to enable them to do this? Can they sit on the floor? (If not, it’s worth talking about adjustments that the school can make to enable your child to take part in the curriculum together with their peers – it might be usual for whole class teaching to be delivered to children sitting on the floor for Reception children, but it might be better in some cases for all the children to be sitting on chairs rather than the floor or it might be possible to obtain equipment to support your child to sit on the floor rather than for them to remain sitting on a chair whilst the other children sit together on the floor.


Can your child walk? If yes, is walking something they can do enough of, without tiring themselves out, that it’s a reasonable means for them to navigate the school site? If they use a mobility aid, like a stick/crutches/walking frame, what arrangements will the school need to make for them (eg. space to store the mobility aid either by the child’s desk or elsewhere in the classroom, if it’s not needed for short distances).

If your child can walk, but gets fatigued, what are the realistic options? Can they do less walking through the day? Can they have a wheelchair to use when tired? What are the options for playtimes? Although many Reception classes operate with a lot of child led activities, it’s unusual for the children to have the option of being in a space big enough to run around in outside of play times. Most of the children will get a lot out of playtimes where they are allowed to run around so where there are children who will get unduly fatigued by (too much) running around, a solution needs to be created for them that allows them time and space to rest.

If your child can walk but is unsteady on their feet, is it safe enough for them to walk around school generally? If not and they’re using a wheelchair for most travel around the school site, when would it be safe for them to be on their feet and doing some walking?

Is your child independent using a wheelchair – whether manual or self-propelled? If yes, where is there to store/charge the wheelchair when it’s not being used? If not, what adult support is available to supervise them and/or help them move around?


For children who use wheelchairs, what arrangements need to be made to enable them to transfer from their wheelchair to a classroom chair/the floor/a toilet/a changing trolley. If they are very physically dependent and/or have a lot of uncontrolled body movements they are likely to need to be hoisted for their own comfort and for their own safety. Additionally, it is important that nobody is repeatedly lifting a child to provide care, particularly in ways that may pose a risk in the longer term of back problems.


Can your child feed themselves the sort of food they’ll be served at school with the available cutlery? If not, could they do so if supplied with alternative cutlery and/or alternative food?

What are the arrangements for drinks? Can your child serve themselves a cup of water?

If your child doesn’t eat orally, do they know how they are fed? If your child is allergic to a particular food, do they know what they cannot safely eat?


Can your child understand and respond in spoken English? How able is your child to communicate about things that are bothering them to the adults around them? Would they tell someone if they’d hurt themselves? How able are they at communicating with other children? If they’re D/deaf, do they use hearing aids? How much do they know about how their hearing aids work? How much do they need an adult to manage for them? Do they use any form of AAC? Might some AAC help them eg. a communication book – either with symbols/pictures for the child to use to help conveying their meaning or the sort of book where someone who knows the child very well describes their communication.


Is your child fully toilet trained? Do they know how to make sure they’ve cleaned themselves properly? Do they know about needing to wash their hands afterwards? Do they know to tell an adult if they have an accident? Are the facilities in the school suitable in size/location for your child?

If your child has more complex continence needs eg. they need to be cathetrised intermittently and/or they need to wear pull ups because they are incontinent, what do they know about their own needs? Can they change their own pull up? How do the school make sure the children using pull ups aren’t bullied by other children for doing so?

If your child is not yet at a developmental stage where toilet training makes sense, do they know that urine and faeces are waste and not for playing with?

Personal hygiene

Can your child blow their nose? Do they know used tissues go in a bin? Do their school clothes have pockets for tissues?

Not usually an issue in September, but for the summer of the following year: is your child likely to be able to apply suncream to their arms, legs and face independently?


Can your child put on and take off their own socks and shoes? Can they manage tights, if they wear them? Can they put their own jumper or cardigan on and take it off? What about their coat? Gloves?

If they can’t manage this themselves, do they know what these items of clothing feel like when they’re on properly, so they can get someone to help them?

How much clothing do the Reception children usually change for PE? Can your child manage that?


If your child uses an asthma reliver inhaler / is prescribed an adrenaline auto-injector, what are the arrangements for storing these items safely in the classroom?

How much does your child know about their own medication?

If your child wears glasses some or all of the time, do they know when to wear them and how to store them when not wearing them?

Does your child use any other equipment, eg. splints, a “second skin”? What help do they need to manage it?

Awareness of danger

Would your child know they’re supposed to follow adult instructions?

Does your child know not to take somebody else’s medication?

Sensory processing/other environmental factors

How able is your child to cope with the sensory environment of school? Is it too big/too noisy/otherwise difficult for them? What can be done to make it better for them? Is there somewhere outside the classroom they can go if they are overwhelmed?

For lots of children, including those who are D/deaf, the acoustic performance of the different rooms is important.

Likewise, for lots of children it’s important that the light in the classrooms is good ie. not glaring and with blinds at any windows to avoid their being too much light.