The Tanner Scheme: recollections

Throughout the middle 1960’s Hertford operated an uniquely progressive admissions system, so progressive that other colleges consistently attempted to expel us from the system - Keith McLauchlan, Emeritus Fellow

The alumni interviewed below applied to Hertford between 1965 and 1985, while the college was running a revolutionary scheme that sidestepped the traditional route into Oxford and set up a new system for students from state schools. For more information about the historic ‘Hertford Scheme’, read about Neil Tanner and his work. To find out more about our current work in outreach, visit our Access pages.



Adrian Briggs

Adrian Briggs (Law, 1975)

Adrian is Professor of Private International Law, and Tutorial Felllow at St Edmund Hall.

By the time I applied to read law in 1974, the Hertford Scheme had been running for some time. I applied, and in due course came up for interview. Roy Stuart asked me a number of unsettling questions, mainly about shooting people who had been left for dead by someone else, or who were falling past a window on the low floor of a high building, just about to reach their own version of terminal velocity. And then, perhaps because I was a Tanner scheme applicant, I was sent along to be interviewed by Neil Tanner.

At least, I supposed it was an interview. When, in an incautious answer to an early question, I ventured the view that the Nuffield Syllabus was all about estimating, I was asked how I would estimate the weight of an Austin Mini if I did not have any scales. When that seemed to be going nowhere, I was asked to calculate the distance flown by a fly which flew to and fro, in a straight line and always at 20 mph, between two cyclists who started a mile apart and who cycled towards each other at various speeds. At the end of all this, Neil seemed to have reassured himself that I knew nothing at all but that it was not my fault. The whole thing was done with a barely suppressed sense of unthreatening amusement that a physics syllabus could have imparted so little knowledge on its victim; and that was that. I got an EE offer, came up in 1975, left in 1979, and returned to Oxford in 1980 as Fellow and Tutor at St Edmund Hall.

I was made Admissions Tutor very soon after my arrival, and so had chance to watch Neil in action at termly meetings of the Oxford Colleges' Admissions Office. I was never completely sure that I understood what he was arguing for, but I always knew that he was on the side of right. It made it so much easier to come to a view.


Judith Samuel

Judith Samuel (PPP, 1979)

Judith’s career is in clinical psychology; since 2008 she has been Head of an Oxford-based NHS Psychological Service for people with intellectual disabilities.

I came up to Hertford in 1979 to read PPP. Although I wanted to try for Oxbridge, I was attending a newly formed comprehensive school where the attitude was that the chances of getting into Oxbridge from a comprehensive school were poor. I took the 4th term entrance exam, attended an interview before Christmas and was offered an unconditional place. I was the only pupil to go up to Oxford from my school in 1979.

I hadn’t appreciated that being a woman at Hertford at that time we were still such pioneers... It was intimidating in the JCR when rugger was on the TV, the college bar was not always a joy to behold and domestic facilities were somewhat Spartan... Nonetheless, thanks to the Hertford Scheme I had an extraordinarily unforgettable and confidence building experience at Oxford.

Thank you Professor Tanner and thank you Hertford College for giving me, a shy 1970s comprehensive schoolgirl from rural Devon, the opportunity to succeed in such diverse ways both at Oxford and thereafter throughout my life including being a role model for my own daughters.


David Cornwell

David Cornwell (Physics, 1965)

David is now retired, but previously worked at the European Commission in Brussels.

I was born in 1947 to a working class family in north east London (relatives thought our parents had bought above themselves when they purchased a house in Wanstead for £600 in the months before the war). On passing the old eleven plus I went to Leyton County High School (LCHS) for Boys, a grammar school, which in 1968 became a comprehensive school. My brother had left school and gone out to work aged sixteen. When I reached that age my parents were asked to go to the school and were told that it would be a waste if I didn't stay on for sixth form and go to university.

At this point, during the autumn term in 1964, I heard that someone was coming from Oxford and that I was one of the people he wanted to interview. I met Neil Tanner for the first time in the school library on an October morning with the sun streaming in through the windows. This (perhaps) triggered a typically whimsical, but probing question from him. He threw a coin onto the table and asked something like 'why doesn't this coin start to rotate?' Neil wanted to have a chat about the application of physical principles, rather than whether I could do the mathematics, which he knew I could.

I was subsequently awarded the Baring Open Scholarship, worth £60 a year (a considerable amount at a time when my father earned less than a thousand pounds a year and I received £280 p.a. as a grant from the local education authorities), and went up in October 1965. When I arrived Hertford was still considered a 'hearty' college, and very low down the Norrington Table. It is therefore perhaps worth mentioning, though I do not wish to be nasty to my good friends and colleagues, that there were six of us physicists, three from public schools and three from grammar schools and the public school graduates eventually got poor seconds or thirds while the grammar school graduates got good seconds or firsts.

It was only decades later that I slowly discovered how unorthodox Neil's manner of working had been; indeed, how unpopular his scheme had been with many others at the university. I spent six years at Hertford, the last three simultaneously at the Theoretical Physics Department where I did my D.Phil. My subsequent career would take too long to recount other than by saying that I was successively: a research physicist, Lieutenant RN, and a principal engineer / lecturer / consultant / administrator (the last with the European Commission in Brussels).


Isobel Colyer

Isobel Collyer (Law, 1982)

Isobel is a freelance Singer, Actor and Voice Coach, helping people of all abilities to unlock their full vocal potential.  

I hadn’t made up my mind to go to university at all, and only signed up to look around Hertford because our history teacher was an alumnus and had offered us a trip in a minibus. No-one from my school had been to Oxbridge for as long as anyone could remember, nor had my parents attended university.

My school was in the process of dismantling the sixth form, and many teachers were leaving or disengaged. By the time I took my A levels there were only 36 students left and standards were slipping, with the inevitable result that many bright students performed quite badly. My French teacher never finished the syllabus, and we hadn’t read one of the set texts.

Of the 10 lawyers in my year at Hertford, only one or two had been to fee-paying schools. Most of my contemporaries had been to state schools and were often the only one from that school to have found their way to Oxford. Even then it felt like a privilege, but in the current financial climate it seems like a dream of a bygone era. I worked through the vacations and left college with no debt, which meant I was under no pressure to earn a substantial salary and thus able to work in the voluntary sector.

Hertford taught me how to think for myself, and to have courage in my own convictions and the strength to pursue a minority path through life. I owe to Neil Tanner the belief that all things are possible, to look for potential in anyone and any situation, and that education is for the business of living a full and useful life, not just for helping one to a career. Had I not applied to Hertford I might not have gone to university at all, and the mind-opening and artistic opportunities offered by Oxford life have been of enormous benefit in my performing life and in the many voluntary/charitable positions I now hold.


Peter Newman

Peter Newman (Geography, 1973) 

Peter took early retirement from Deloitte, where he led the firm’s Oil & Gas sector practice globally, and has since taken up a portfolio of non-executive directorships for four companies in the oil and shipping sectors, as Trustee and Honorary Treasurer for the charity WaterAid and as a member of the Finance Committee at the Royal Geographical Society.

I was at a Suffolk Grammar School, which was switching to Comprehensive, in the late summer of 1972. I had never previously considered applying to Oxbridge and actually had set my mind upon Liverpool or Sheffield, based solely on reading about their courses, faculties and the cities. But my schoolmaster called me to his office and told me that he wanted me to consider applying to Oxford, and to Hertford in particular.

I was a little surprised when I was invited to visit the College, the School of Geography and be interviewed. I had no expectation of being offered a place and recall being extremely relaxed throughout, making friends easily with many of those also attending for interview, from like backgrounds from all over the country. I suspect I was a little flippant and even ‘cocky’ in some of the interviews, I certainly enjoyed my visit. But upon returning home I put it out of my mind as I was still sure that Oxford was looking for candidates far more exceptional than me. I was thus flabbergasted when, just a couple of weeks later, I opened the mail to read that I was being offered entry, with the requirement being just 2 A Levels at Grade E, a very long remove from the 4 subjects that I was then earnestly pursuing with Grade A’s as my aim!

It was of course an offer too good to decline and, albeit with some disappointment, I abandoned all ideas of going instead to a northern redbrick.

I matriculated in 1973, and soon found my feet, both academically and on the sports field/socially. It was a stimulating and fun environment, although sadly almost exclusively male! I felt extraordinarily fortunate to have gained my place through the ‘Tanner Scheme’. At the time of course, to most of us undergraduates, the Tanner Scheme was more or less invisible, it was certainly not much discussed amongst us. We were all too busy meeting new people and making the most of the myriad opportunities in front of us.


Phil Runchman

Philip Runchman (Medicine, 1967)

Philip retired from the Royal Navy in 2006 as Surgeon Captain and Consultant Surgeon.

I was offered my place at Hertford by Dr Vaughan Williams who had met my Headmaster at a conference and asked him if he had any promising state school pupils who might be suitable for a place at Hertford. I was interviewed by Dr Vaughan Williams in December 1966 and offered a place almost regardless of my A level grades.

While at Hertford reading medicine I was tutored by Dr Vaughan Williams who I hold in great affection. My place at Hertford was a great step up onto the ladder of life. If Dr Tanner was an instigator of the scheme to encourage students from state schools to apply to Hertford then I am obviously grateful to him as well.




Michael Slocombe

Michael Slocombe (Physics & Philosophy, 1969) 

Michael works for Trinity College, Gawler, Australia, now as Manager of Educational Programmes at the Environmental and Conservation Centre. 

I was a student at what was then Barnstaple Grammar School in North Devon. There was no great tradition of Oxbridge success at the school. I remember our Headmaster suggesting I choose which college to apply for at random. I made a lucky choice.

Neil was a charismatic Australian. I did enjoy Quantum Mechanics and Nuclear Physics, and I did well enough at these subjects to convince Neil I had some potential. It was largely through his influence, I believe, that I was offered a Commonwealth scholarship to study for a PhD in Nuclear Physics at the Australian National University in Canberra, which I duly completed in 1976, and decided to settle in Australia.

I went on to have a career in secondary education and was for many years a school Principal. I continue to work at the school part time and each year give a talk on Nuclear Physics to our final year students. It could well be said that Neil gave me an education and a country in which to use it. 


John Alton

John Alton (Chemistry, 1969)

John is a retired Headteacher.

I was very aware of Neil Tanner and his effect on the intake of Hertford at that time. All my chemist colleagues at Hertford and certainly most of the physicists of 1969 were, like me, from state school backgrounds.

I have always been extremely grateful for the opportunities which Hertford provided and I am sure I would not have gained what I did if I had gone to a different university – it was a great privilege to be at Oxford, especially in the days of free local authority grants, which contributed, like the Hertford Scheme, to the opening up of opportunities for many state school students. I chose to take up a career in education and spent many years as a head teacher in primary schools. I think the way Oxford opened my mind to such a rich and diverse set of experiences contributed hugely to my own approach and philosophy in education (and in life) and I hope I passed some of these attitudes on to the teachers and hundreds of young people I worked with.

I now work with young people from state schools on the verge of going to university and find it interesting how even the more academically talented don't bother to apply to Oxbridge because they think they will either not fit in or not be able to manage the work. The university has such a high-status image that those without the self-confidence engendered by their school or family shy away. Unfortunately Oxford retains the reputation of recruiting a high percentage of public school students, and those from state school or unsupported backgrounds can find this off-putting. Hertford's continuing endeavours to promote open access to Oxford is vital to bringing more of these students to experience the benefits it can offer....and thanks to the vision of Neil Tanner for starting off this ongoing change.


Mike Shiels

Mike Shiels (Physics, 1983)

Mike is an IT Design Manager for British Airways.

It is no exaggeration to say that without the Hertford Scheme, I would never have considered applying for Oxford. I was the first person ever, in my extended family, to stay on at school after O-levels. Consequently, I was the first ever to consider university, and the collective familial knowledge of what this involved was zero. One of my teachers encouraged me to look at Oxford, but the choice of colleges was overwhelming, and the prospect of the entrance examination was too daunting.

The interview itself was nerve-wracking of course, and I remember a challenge about a stack of sugar of sugar cubes (if lowered into a cup of tea, how high above the surface would the tea rise up the stack - clue: it's capillary action...). In the end, I failed to get accepted through the Scheme, but received such encouraging feedback on how close I came to being accepted, that I got up the courage to try the entrance exam and succeeded through that route.

Once at Hertford, my memories of Neil Tanner are of an enormous flamboyant presence. It was clear that he was a dedicated and talented scientist, but seemed to operate largely on the basis of an intuitive understanding of how physics worked. He taught me that the people who make change happen dive into things and let others worry about the details. It was how he did science, it was how he did admissions, and it was how he lived his life.