RARE  RISINGSTARS 2014 The UK’s Top 10 Black Students
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Understanding Success

photo of Naomi Kellman
As a Rare alumnus � and the founder of its Target Oxbridge programme � Naomi Kellman knows a thing or two about success. Here, she explains why having an appreciation of the context in which it is achieved is so valuable.

I arrived at Lincoln College, Oxford to study Philosophy, Politics and Economics with mixed feelings. I was ecstatic to have made it, but couldn�t quite believe the tutors wanted me there. My academic achievements were evidence that I deserved my place. However, I was a girl of mixed black Caribbean, African and white heritage, the eldest of six children, born to parents who hadn�t attended university, and educated at a Croydon comprehensive school up until my GCSEs. I was no stereotypical Oxford student!

A fortuitous move to a grammar school sixth form meant that I received well-informed support when applying to Oxford. This was essential for me as my parents, whilst wonderfully supportive, couldn�t help me through the process. I found the process daunting however, as it felt like I was venturing into another world. This manifested itself as me hiding in my room during my interview days, feeling intimidated by the superior education and obvious polish of some of the other applicants. I even continued to underestimate my abilities in relation to those of my peers throughout my first year at Oxford.

It wasn�t until my second year that I realised the context surrounding my achievements should be a source of confidence for me. I had achieved everything my peers had, and more, without the benefit of their more favourable circumstances. If I had come this far, what was stopping me from going even further? I left Oxford with a first class degree in 2011, making it clear that the answer to that question was: �nothing�.

I founded Target Oxbridge whilst working at Rare in 2011-12 with these lessons and experiences in mind. Target Oxbridge aims to help state school educated students of black and mixed black heritage improve their chances of gaining a place at Oxbridge. The programme provides tailored advice and coaching in regard to the application process that candidates are unlikely to receive at school or at home. It also provides mentoring to build their confidence and to develop the skills they will need to get through the application process and beyond.

Since joining the Civil Service Fast Stream in 2012, I have returned each year to help interview the Target Oxbridge applicants. With thanks to this year�s co-ordinator, Josh Oware, the most recent assessment process included a systematic consideration of achievement in context.

Applicants were invited to provide contextual information such as details of their family life, health, and experiences at school. We also considered the average achievement of students at each applicant�s school to contextualise their grades. It was a humbling exercise. Some of the applicants had achieved huge amounts in very difficult circumstances, further convincing us that they had what it took to make it to Oxbridge.

The Target Oxbridge cohort of 2014 get a feel for Oxford during a trip, organised as part of this year’s programme.

The Target Oxbridge cohort of 2014 get a feel for Oxford during a trip, organised as part of this year’s programme.

These considerations of context are also relevant in the world of work. On joining the Department for Education in 2012, I was struck by the lack of ethnic diversity within the Senior Civil Service (SCS), which has also been acknowledged recently in the media. With so few senior policy makers having a personal insight into the lives of a large proportion of the population, it seems right to be concerned that government policy might not be as well informed or representative as it might be. For example, it seems obvious that government considerations of the educational underachievement of some ethnic minority groups might be better informed if some of the senior policy makers have experienced education in this context.

With this in mind, I co-founded the Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Fast Stream Network in October 2013. The network aims to improve the diversity and representativeness of the Fast Stream and ultimately the SCS, as the Fast Stream is one of the Civil Service�s main talent pipelines. As well as providing a forum for ethnic minority Fast Streamers to discuss their experiences, we also host events at which ethnic minority senior civil servants share the stories of their careers, the challenges they faced, and the methods they used to overcome those challenges.

The response to our first event of this type was encouraging, with ethnic minority civil servants from across Whitehall signing up to attend. Our speaker was flooded with questions and requests for advice after her talk, and it was apparent that having access to a role model was inspiring, and useful in a practical way, to those who had attended the event.

In a similar way, Rare Rising Stars tells the stories of extremely impressive young people, many of whom have achieved great things in difficult circumstances. By telling their stories, the Rare Rising Stars act as a source of inspiration for many others who find themselves in similar circumstances. I look forward to being further inspired by this year�s Stars.

Naomi currently works as a Policy Adviser on Education, Children and Culture, as part of HM Treasury�s Public Service Group. For further information on the Target Oxbridge programme, please visit: www.targetoxbridge.co.uk.