Father's spin lets down Euan

AND so, amid the brouhaha of UCAS clearing, it is elegantly leaked unto us that Euan Blair is not going to read ancient history at Oxford, but at Bristol. Instead of AAB, he got AAC - dropping a grade in French. So Bristol it is.

All very correct, all very easily and beautifully spun. It appears that we, the press, are allowed to know this time, because the whole manoeuvre reflects credit on the ordinariness of the Blairs. Look, lots of kids missed their first choice. Oxford must have A-graders within its sacred walls. Grades are everything. It would have been dreadful if Euan had got in while Spences and Fedotovas were left lamenting. Wouldn't it?

No, it wouldn't. I hope I am wrong, but it reeks of hypocrisy. Despite Bristol's high prestige, its ancient history does not have the standing of Oxford's, so it sounds like damned bad luck for the lad himself. He never asked to have a father at the head of one of the most interfering, carping, posturing mock-egalitarian governments in the history of higher education. He never asked to have a fiery Scot next door making a fool of himself over Laura Spence.

The fact is that if Euan Blair had been Euan Nobody, and had got an AAB offer and turned in a C for French, there would have been a good chance of any Oxford college taking him anyway. After taking a kid through the exhaustive interview process and on-site test in the Christmas term, dons are often robustly indifferent to mild slippage. "We liked him at interview," they say to themselves, "and looked forward to teaching him. And he got two As. So never mind what the clowns at Edexcel think. Let's have him!" I have known students slip a grade - even in a main subject - and still get in. Really impressive ones even get EE offers. If they slip in two subjects, or by more than a grade, that is different. But one C is containable, forgivable, normal.

But just imagine the horrified conversations in the college and Number 10:

"The press'll crucify us! We can't let it happen!"

Well, never mind. Bristol is a pretty good achievement and if he does not like it he can always walk out, spend a year reading Herodotus behind a burger counter and try again for Trinity 2003. Decent colleges like applicants who will not go away. But what the whole creepy business underlines is what was already clear from the absurd rows over Ms Spence and Fedotova. Politicians, fired by fake egalitarianism, do not understand the value of interviews.

This mindset destroyed the entrance exam years ago - on the principle that private-school kids would be groomed for it - and now is determined to destroy the interview, presumably on the grounds that dons might be nasty to people with working-class accents (unlikely, given many of their own). Politicians, being bean-counters by nature, like the idea that only grades measure quality. They do not want to admit that skilled university teachers are actually more likely to pick out the kids who truly want, and can manage, the intensive and personal teaching on offer.

Having experienced the system as parent, aunt, school governor and friend, I am ever-more convinced that the threshold of the most serious, difficult university courses ought always to involve an interview. I salute those departments which take the trouble. Those who find it logistically impossible deserve sympathy, and the issue of travel costs for poor applicants needs attention; but even if it involved regional tours by interviewers in the Christmas holidays, more universities should do it.

Then, instead of firing off blind offers, they could put it all together: results, GCSE and AS record, personal statement, reference, and human reality. They could judge more sharply whether the student has thought about the course (a lot, one lecturer told me, put down psychology "just because they have not done it at school so it holds no boring memories, and anyway, they really enjoyed Cracker on TV"). They could judge the things that A-levels do not - the ability to think laterally, to be excited by a new idea, to respond candidly to contradiction. If they are sensitive, they can reassure the nervous, and distinguish between social shyness and real dullness.

Interviews are good. Interviews are human. They should not be belittled by stupid outcries about "five A" rejects (usually on closer examination it is four As plus general studies anyway). The more universities interview, the better understood it will be. As long as it is mainly just Oxford and Cambridge - with all the terrible snobbish baggage that their poor names carry - there will be a real risk that governments will press for a soulless, mechanistic system which considers only grades.

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