UK scheme supporting Black students to reach Oxbridge expands to nursery schools

The Hemisphere programme helps teachers see how unconscious damages students’ prospects

One of the UK’s most successful schemes supporting students of Black heritage to get into Oxford and Cambridge universities is expanding to help children as young as three years old to achieve their academic potential.

Target Oxbridge has worked with more than 800 Black British students, of whom more than 350 have secured Oxbridge offers. In 2021, alumni from the scheme made up 24% of the Black British undergraduates starting at the universities.

But the scheme’s founder, Raphael Mokades, when looking back at a decade of personal stories from Target Oxbridge participants, saw evidence that Black British children were experiencing racism and unconscious bias from teachers at such a young age that the scheme needed to be rolled out to a far younger cohort.

“Not every child aged three is going to be Oxbridge potential, but every child aged three deserves to have equal opportunity,” Mokades said. “Right now, while talent may be distributed evenly, opportunity is not. We want to change that.”

Exclusion rates for Black Caribbean students in English schools are up to six times higher than those of their white peers in some local authorities, Guardian analysis has found. Some experts argue that racism in schools is so endemic that it should be treated as a safeguarding issue, pointing to research that shows most Black children have experienced racism in school.

Mokades points to the Sewell report as further evidence of racism being a big factor in the underachievement of Black students. The 2021 report, which was accused of downplaying structural racism, nevertheless found that Black children on free school meals (FSM) starting key stage 1 were ahead of their white and Asian FSM peers. But, by age 16, their achievement is as low as white FSM children and lower than Asian FSM children who started school behind them.

“If you couple this data with what our students are telling us about their school experience, it is pretty clear that while poverty is a massive issue, it isn’t the only issue. Race matters,” Mokades said.

The new project, Hemisphere Education, uses resources including government data, academic research and students’ own life stories to help teachers in nursery settings, primary and secondary schools recognise how they might unconsciously be damaging the academic prospects of Black children under their care.

The one-hour, online Hemisphere course explains how unconscious bias can affect even those who think they are inclusive and the impact it can have on children. Analysis of the scheme’s pilot project has found that more than 90% of users found it useful, while on average each user committed to doing seven things differently as a result of the training.

Nawal Filali, the deputy headteacher at College Green nursery school in Brent, asked some of her staff to trial the programme. She said she was taken aback by how positively it was received. “I was amazed by the way this programme empowered staff members to engage in really honest self-analysis about unconscious bias,” she said.

Wendy Yianni, the school’s headteacher, said the programme gave staff confidence to acknowledge that some racial groups are more likely to have specific challenges. “We have realised we don’t have to pretend to be colour-blind – we can talk about race,” she said.

Wendy Yianni, headteacher and Nawal Filali, deputy headteacher at College Green Nursery School in north London.
Wendy Yianni (left), headteacher and Nawal Filali (right), deputy headteacher at College Green Nursery School in north London. Photograph: Alicia Canter/The Guardian

“We learned that it’s OK to say Black children might face specific challenges, and so we are going to approach all Black children with the intention of going above and beyond for them until they’ve reached a place of equity with the children who don’t face those challenges,” she added.

Silas Edmonds, the head of Ewell Castle school for children aged three to 18, has also trialled the programme. He said teaching unconscious bias to all teachers and children as young as three was vital. “It’s about giving staff the confidence and the tools to call this stuff out and to teach children how they can call it out before they internalise it and start to be affected by it,” he said.

Edmonds said some of his teachers found the course difficult. “There was a level of guilt from those who did the training then said ‘I can’t believe I used to think that or do that’,” he said.

It is vital to start these conversations with teachers of younger children too, said Edmonds. “We need to have explicit conversations with children from a very early age to help them, as they get older, identify when unconscious prejudice creeps in, either in themselves or in others.”


Amelia Hill

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
National tutoring scheme failing disadvantaged pupils, say MPs
Consultancy firm Randstad’s contract ‘must end’ unless it delivers learning missed during Covid

Richard Adams Education editor

10, Mar, 2022 @10:00 PM

Article image
Oxbridge 'failing to address diversity', David Lammy says
MP says universities put pressure on journalists to change stories about lack of black students getting places rather than addressing concerns

Richard Adams, Education editor

20, Oct, 2017 @6:21 PM

Article image
Three ways for UK schools to improve their race relations now
Instead of empty slogans, schools should treat racism like safeguarding and health and safety and be on high alert. Here’s what to do

Lola Okolosie

23, Jun, 2020 @7:00 AM

Article image
Black students on Oxbridge: 'we need to change the narrative'
Students who have made it to Oxford and Cambridge say more can be done to help others follow in their footsteps

Carmen Fishwick

20, Oct, 2017 @4:41 PM

Article image
Baseline tests dropped for reception pupils
Assessments to chart progress of four- and five-year-olds at state school withdrawn due to comparability concerns

Richard Adams Education editor

07, Apr, 2016 @6:28 PM

Article image
Signs of hate: Parental guide to far-right codes, symbols and acronyms
Explainer: A sample from the UK campaign group Hope Not Hate’s safeguarding guide on the far right

Sally Weale Education correspondent

04, Aug, 2022 @2:00 PM

Article image
'We tried to cope hour by hour': the schools in shadow of Grenfell Tower
There is no ‘moving on’ for schools near the husk of Grenfell Tower, as pupils mourn friends, family and staff, and cope with the trauma of losing everything

Susanna Rustin

27, Nov, 2017 @12:23 PM

Article image
‘Many of our children don’t get presents’: schools open over Christmas for families with nothing
Headteachers tell of the challenges brought by 10 years of austerity – and their hopes and fears for the new year

Liz Lightfoot

17, Dec, 2019 @7:15 AM

Article image
Primary school invites in elderly people to work with young pupils
Downshall primary school in Essex hosts day centre where older people, some with early dementia, can interact with children

Sally Weale Education correspondent

11, Dec, 2017 @11:38 AM

Article image
Mental health in schools: Lily’s story
A headteacher tells the story of one child’s personal struggle to pass her GCSE exams while recovering from abuse


31, May, 2016 @6:20 AM