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From Hackney to Oxford university: What it’s like joining the academic elite

PUBLISHED: 16:50 16 November 2020 | UPDATED: 14:14 26 November 2020

Oxford University student James Brown and Oxford University Fellow Mike Freeman both grew up in Hackney. Picture: Amanda Sharpe.

Oxford University student James Brown and Oxford University Fellow Mike Freeman both grew up in Hackney. Picture: Amanda Sharpe.

Courtesy of James Brown

Student James Brown, who grew up in Hackney, explains his journey from Tottenham schools to the University of Oxford and his views on the lack of opportunities for many in the UK’s education system.

Student James Brown, who grew up in Hackney, explains his journey from Tottenham schools to the University of Oxford and his views on the lack of opportunities for many in the UK’s education system.

James’ love of learning began at Tiverton Primary School, Tottenham, and continued onto Gladesmore Community School.

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He cites his ambition, willingness to ask for help and seize opportunities as transformational, following a period where his attainment dropped.

He said: “Secondary school started really well, but in Year 9, my attainment slipped. I didn’t see a reason anymore.

“I thought, I’ll get out of Hackney and bring the family forward, but I was lazy.”

James says his complacency saw his hours of gaming increasing alongside wanting to be perceived as popular.

“The way society works, at least in Tottenham, the cool people are associated with roadmen and gang activity.

“This reached a culmination in Year 10. My friends were stealing mopeds and gambling at school.

“One senior member of staff said most of your friends are going to get kicked out this year and you need to make a decision.”

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The following week, One of James’ friends invited him to her church, The Potters House; something he says was a turning point and radical overnight change.

James recounts inspiring teachers who opened doors, including a music teacher who gave him opportunities to perform with the cast of Hamilton and Motown at the Royal Albert Hall and the Barbican.

After becoming head boy of Gladesmore, James’ headteacher encouraged him to join the mentoring scheme Eastside Young Leaders’ Academy.

He said: “Part of the programme is sending off kids to boarding schools on scholarships. I went to Wellington College on a 110 per cent bursary.

“Everyone at school was from African or Caribbean culture with the same religious ideas and views on how the world is. Boarding school was a new world, everything was a debate.”

At first, James didn’t know how to adapt, but now sees his experience at public school as his biggest period of growth.

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“At secondary school, my debating club was run by a PE teacher who had never done it before. At boarding school, a Team England debater ran it.

“I opened myself up to a new world – the world is so much bigger than Tottenham.”

It was on a school trip to the University of Oxford that James decided to apply to Regent’s Park College and read theology.

His debating teacher became his interview tutor, giving weekly sessions - something James describes as a world away from the state school experience.

He said: “It’s scary that we have a two tier education system.”

On the topic of Oxbridge’s lack of state school students, James continued: “Access is very limited, even for academically gifted kids.

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“We don’t get the most out of the potential from those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.

“We have a talent pool that is so vast, but so many fall through the gaps.”

James feels responsible for giving back to his community and inspiring other pupils, following the opportunities he was given in Tottenham.

He says: “We are missing potential world changers because of the system.

“Politicians, people like Boris Johnson – why would he have a strong incentive to change the public school system that helped him so much?”

James believes there is a long way to go to reach equality: “We always speak of a meritocracy.

“It assumes the same foundations. It becomes a fair race if everyone starts at the same point. Oxford and Cambridge accept ‘the best’ but those people already started ahead.”

University of Oxford fellow Mike Freeman, who grew up on the Lordship Terrace estate in Stoke Newington, said “how pleased the college is to have James”: “I hope we can have people like myself and James from Hackney at Oxford.

“I attended William Patten and then Woodberry Down School before going to University College London to study genetics. My father was a lorry driver and my mum an OAP carer. I was the first in my family to go to university.

“I came to Oxford in 2013 as a part-time student, and I am now a published sports historian. I did not find many people from Hackney.

“In June 2020, I joined Regent’s Park College as a fellow and director of operations.”

Both James and Mike hope their stories and programmes, such as Eastside Young Leaders’ Academy, help more Hackney students reach Oxbridge.


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