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Blair gives pupils a taste of Oxbridge;News;News and opinion

Inner-city sixth-formers have told the Prime Minister that they simply can't afford to apply to top universities. Chris Bunting reports

TONY Blair got a pop-star's welcome at an inner-city girls' school this week, but his proposals to encourage working-class children into university met with a cooler response.

The Prime Minister and Education Secretary David Blunkett visited La Sainte Union convent school, in north London, to announce a pound;4 million network of summer schools to encourage clever, working-class children to apply to top universities.

Five thousand 16- and 17-year-olds will be invited to summer schools at Oxford, Cambridge, London's Imperial College, Birmingham, Sheffield, York, Nottingham and Bristol to give them a taste of university life. Their teachers will also be encouraged to visit.

But students at La Sainte Union were unimpressed. They said the reason for their low rate of application to the top universities had less to do with aspiration than grim financial reality.

Charlotte MacKulin, 18, confronted Mr Blair. "Even with the loans, a lot of our parents still can't afford for us to go out (of London). What are you going to do to help us?" she asked.

She was unimpressed by Mr Blair's reassurance that she wouldn't have to pay back her loans until she was employed and earning at least pound;10,000 per annum.

Miss MacKulin, the daughter of a construction worker and a primary school assistant, has been predicted straight As at A-level and wants to study law, but has not applied to Oxbridge.

"I don't know whether he understood my question. The maximum loan I can get is about pound;3,500 a year and that is not enough," she said. Because her parents earn slightly above the means-tested exemption from fees, she will have to pay pound;1,000 towards her tuition on top of her maintenance.

"I don't want a pound;12,000 debt when I leave university. It means I have had to apply to only London universities and live at home," she said.

Classmate Leila Schembri said she intended to stay in London with her parents to study media at Goldsmiths' College, London. "At the start of this year, I really wanted to study at Oxford, but I can't afford it," she said.

The sixth-formers' criticism was in marked contrast to the hysteria among younger girls when Mr Blair and Mr Blunkett arrived.

Amid screams reminiscent of the height of Beatlemania, hundreds of schoolgirls mobbed the pair, asking repeatedly about Cherie Blair's expected baby and chanting "Tony Blair, Tony Blair, Tony Blair".

In the quieter surroundings of the school hall, Mr Blair and Mr Blunkett discussed the pound;350m Excellence in Cities scheme - of which the university summer schools are a key part - with an audience of students, teachers, governors, parents.

Mr Blair said the aim was simple: "It is to bring real urgency and purpose to the task of transforming standards and aspirations in the inner cities."

La Sainte was one of 50 new beacon schools announced during the visit. The Excellence in Cities programme is also setting up more than 500 summer schools for gifted and talented 10- to 14-year-olds, 800 learning mentors for inner-city pupils, more than 200 learning support units for disaffected pupils and a network of at least 80 centres for computer-based learning.

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