Julia Abbott, the Programme Director at the ORA course in Merton College, comes to the role with a great deal of experience. With four teenage daughters of her own, all coming to the age when they’re leaving home, she already has a good knowledge of what young adults need: but in addition to that, she has also served as a housemistress in the prestigious Dean’s Close boarding school for six years, looking after fifty girls aged 13-18, an excellent preparation for the Programme Director role at ORA.
Julia has been impressed by the commitment of the students in Merton this fortnight. ‘They’re very, very motivated in their classes. It’s quite obvious that everyone here has chosen to come here and is really keen to work hard, and the academic focus is very important to them. We’ve been going round checking lessons, and making sure that the standard is high enough’ to match the students’ own intensity. The key thing for her, she suggests, in addition to her pastoral role, is to make sure that as far as lessons are concerned ‘the standard of delivery is very high, and the tutors are very passionate about their subjects’. The passion of the tutors, she notes, is matched by that of the students: the teachers, she reveals, have been commenting on the willingness of the students to engage committedly.
The other thing different about teaching the 19-25 group, Julia comments, is their freedom in the evening. ‘We have a packed programme,’ she observes, with a huge range of activities, lessons and excursions –‘we went to Le Manoir restaurant the other night, which they all chose to do, and they all chose to go to Blenheim Palace on Saturday’— but in the evenings, there is a greater latitude for students to follow their own sensibilities, which she appreciates. They’re able to explore Oxford, or to visit pubs and restaurants, or to conduct other studies: ‘they do have the real undergraduate experience’, she notes, and freedom of action is crucial to that. She is keen to make sure that in addition to teaching the students well, they are also encouraged in their independence.
The role of the Programme Director is both pastoral and academic. This year, she notes, the Programme Director has been given a remit to look after the teachers, as well as the students, in order to maintain a high quality of teaching. But really, as she says, the crucial role of the Programme Director is in ‘making sure that students are safe and happy, that they get the best out of the course.’ Her role is very varied. In addition to liaising with teachers and discussing ways to improve lessons and activities, she is also something like a temporary mother: ‘five minutes ago,’ she confides, ‘a girl came to me petrified because there was a spider in her room’; and in that sort of situation, a rather far remove from discussing syllabi with Oxford lecturers, it is she that steps in to shoo out the wayward arachnid. ‘Anything that comes through the door is my problem,’ she comments: and those problems might range from spiders to a student falling ill, or one merely asking for advice as to a pleasant place to eat.
Julia is especially happy to be the director in an ORA campus like Merton, and she is in full agreement with the students’ own joy at being in such a beautiful place. The students themselves, she says, are ‘absolutely delightful company. They all have stories, they all have interests, they have a real focus on their subject, be it business development or something else.’ She is impressed by the pragmatism and drive of many of the students, and by ‘the passion, and the interest that they all show: given time to do extra work, they all go and do extra work.’
The most important thing for a student at the age of those in Merton over this fortnight, she muses, is that they are ‘passionate about the subject they’re following, and have some sort of idea where they’re heading.’ They’ve come to ORA, she comments, because ‘they want to have a head-start in life, in their chosen field: it’s a very competitive world out there, and they all know that.’ She finds their ‘enthusiasm, their energy,’ infectious. One of the things that the counsellors and students have most enjoyed is their discussions: in the pub most evenings, the counsellors –many of whom are little older than the students, having recently finished their degrees— chat with the students about the day’s events and much else. ‘They’re not big drinking sessions,’ she is quick to point out— ‘they’ll take them to a nice little pub, like the Bear [an ancient pub near Merton, dating back to 1242], where they sit and chat: they’ve got all these experiences to share, and I love the variety of people that we have here.’ It’s a hugely familial atmosphere: there’s no curfew, and the only condition imposed upon them is that at five to nine every morning, they must be in their classroom ready to work. It is a system of trust, and one that is yielding great results.