NEITHER Oxford nor the Government emerged with much credit from the row over Laura Spence's failure to get into Magdalen College. Gordon Brown's generalisation may have been sounder than the example he hung it on, but the university's response leaves the impression that it selects those prepared for entry rather than seeking out students with the greatest potential.
David Blunkett's determination to see pupils achieve high standards, whatever their background, may be on firmer ground with city academies. It would be easy to dismiss them as recycled city technology colleges and benefiting the few rather than the many. But as the mixed results of Fresh Start show, something very radical is needed to break the cycle of low expectations and underperformance.
The proposals revealed so far raise plenty of questions about these new government-funded, independent academies. But fundamentally, children growing up in the most deprived and challenging circumstances need the very best schools and teachers and not, as too often happens, some of the shabbiest and ill-equipped buildings, or least-experienced, temporary or demoralised and exhausted staff.
City academies may not b the solution for more than a handful of cases of chronic underachievement. As CTCs showed, there are a limited number of sponsors with pound;2 million to prop up state education. But all schools struggling with urban social and economic decay need the best possible support. Those striving against the odds must not be left with the feeling that only through complete failure can they win government backing.
Labour has recognised this with Excellence in the Cities and its progress awards. But it also needs to acknowledge more often - as David Blunkett does, in fact, in his city academies proposal - that schools cannot be turned round overnight. Underachievement needs to be challenged. But unrealistic targets and timetables only drive the best teachers and heads away from where they are needed most.
Fresh, independent management, combined with complete refurbishment, could release new professional energies and help break down the social polarisation of inner-city schooling. But city academies must include their communities. It is no use them achieving better results by excluding the very pupils they were set up to serve, and triggering another failing school nearby.