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Prof. John Stein, Oxford University
"I've given a seminar to Labour MPs about what we're doing to improve access"
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Thursday, 1 June, 2000, 10:26 GMT 11:26 UK
Oxford professor's fury at government
Magdalen College
Magdalen College: At the centre of the admissions row
The professor in charge of the panel of Oxford academics which rejected the Tyneside schoolgirl Laura Spence says the government has "rubbished" his attempts to widen access to the university.

Professor John Stein said he was furious that 20 years of effort to get a broader cross section of people into Oxford had been treated in this way.



It is ironic that I get pilloried for alleged discrimination when my life's work has been devoted to widening access to education at all ages

Professor John Stein

In a letter to the The Daily Telegraph, he said the "real scandal" was ministers' failure to support attempts, including his own, to help disadvantaged and dyslexic pupils go to universities such as Oxford and Cambridge.

Last week, the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, attacked Magdalen College's decision to turn down Laura, who had applied to read medicine.

The 18-year-old, from Monkseaton Community High School, Whitley Bay, has 10 A* GCSEs, and is expected to get straight As at A-level.

'Ironic'

After being rejected by Oxford, she went on to win a £65,000 scholarship to Harvard University in the United States, where she will read biochemistry.

Prof Stein, who is professor of physiology at Magdalen, said Laura would "undoubtedly" have won a place to study biochemistry at Magdalen.


Laura Spence
Laura Spence: Heading for Harvard

He told The Daily Telegraph she had been rejected for the medicine course because the five successful applicants were more able.

Professor Stein said: "It is ironic that I get pilloried for alleged discrimination when my life's work has been devoted to widening access to education at all ages, from children's reading problems to developing tests to help identify pupils with high academic potential who have not been so well taught, but would benefit from Oxbridge."

Both the Education Secretary, David Blunkett, and Stephen Byers when he was School Standards Minister, had taken an interest in his work, Professor Stein said.

Mr Byers, now Trade and Industry Secretary, had in 1998 inspected a Oxford summer school attended by 120 pupils from state schools and sixth form colleges which Professor Reid organised.

Cash shortage

But Professor Stein said his attempts to get funding from the government to further his dyslexia research had come to nothing.

He said that after Mr Byers had left the Education Department "I got the runaround ... for about a year before being told they had no money that year."

A presentation to Mr Blunkett's staff had also failed to secure the necessary resources which was "all very dispiriting".

Now he faced disbanding his research team because of the lack of research money.

'Fair chance'

Liberal Democrat higher education spokesman Dr Evan Harris, who was himself taught by Prof Stein as a medical student at Oxford, said that the government's treatment of him was "extremely disappointing".

Dr Harris said that he had been involved in Prof Stein's summer schools as his local MP, and believed that his work on dyslexia deserved government funding.

He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "Access isn't just about background.It is about people with disabilities being able to have a fair chance in life."

Personal commitment

Mr Blunkett has some sympathy for Magdalen as he is aware of the efforts it has made to attract students from state schools.

But he is not prepared to be lectured by Prof Stein on the subject of dyslexia.

Mr Blunkett said he was personally committed to work about dyslexia, as he had family members with the condition.

The Education Department denied it had ignored Prof Stein's pleas for funding for his research.

A spokeswoman said ministers had decided that "his research proposal was not a priority area for 1999-2000".

She added: "DfEE officials have since visited Professor Stein to discuss a variety of his research projects and the department does show an interest."

On Thursday the education secretary addressed the annual conference of the National Association of Head Teachers in Jersey.

Boosting confidence

During his speech, he only touched briefly on the subject of university admissions.

He said schools should raise young people's aspirations and expectations so that they believed in themselves, which would help open up opportunities which had previously been the privilege of the few.

Young people from all backgrounds needed the right qualifications and right support to give them access to top universities.

"I ask that you assist us in building that confidence and building these achievements that make it possible for those young people to achieve," he told head teachers.

Speaking to journalists later, Mr Blunkett said: "The broader agenda is that unless you raise standards and in particular raise expectations, the issue of access becomes more difficult.

"The thing that private schools have is that raising of confidence and expectations."

Personal appeal

Meanwhile, Andrew Hobson, a professional admissions tutor at Magdalen College, made a direct personal appeal to pupils in the north-east of England to apply to the college.

In a letter published in The Journal, the Newcastle-based regional morning newspaper, he said that in 1999, 4% of all the UK students who applied for higher education courses through the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service had come from the North East.

But students from the region had only made up 2% of all those who had applied to Oxford University.

"However, nearly 45% of those of you who did apply to Oxford got offers, as opposed to 42% from the rest of the UK," he said.

"If twice as many of you applied to bring the 2% up to 4%, then almost twice as many of you would statistically receive offers. Please, think about it!"

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See also:

31 May 00 | Education
Hague stokes elitism row
26 May 00 | UK Politics
Labour's 'class war' over Oxbridge
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