Upper Clapton Road in Hackney, east London, is a long way from Oxford. It is more Sweeney than Morse; more bingo than Bullingdon. But that hasn't deterred one local college from encouraging its students to aim for the top, and in a rather unusual way. If Oxford is too distant culturally for most Hackney students to comprehend, reasoned BSix Brooke House Sixth Form College, we'll move it closer to home. So it imported a kosher Oxford don, built him a pukka Oxford study, threw in a statue of Hercules and put students on a gruelling course intended to replicate a year of Oxford study (see pages 32-34). Admissions to elite universities soared.
BSix aims to challenge rather than patronise. The work is intense. The college prefers to push, not excuse. It is firmly against universities lowering the bar and reducing their requirements for students from poorer backgrounds. All of which is laudable, noble even. But it does risk playing into the hands of those who are a lot less noble than it is.
In the past few weeks, the right-wing press have done their best to trash the notion that universities should make allowances for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. "Social engineering!" they shriek, which roughly translated means: "You can't make the game fairer when we've spent thousands on school fees trying to rig it." And, depressingly, although that stance is morally dubious, it is practically true. Universities can make the application process less opaque. They can and should make every effort to reach out to pupils who find them forbidding. But they cannot rectify years of poor education.
Universities cannot be blamed for the fact that too few disadvantaged kids make the grade. The number of poor pupils who have the necessary qualifications but who do not go into higher education is tiny, a few hundred in the entire country. Which means that the responsibility of raising those pupils' grades - and the money necessary to make it happen - must rest with schools. More need to be as imaginative and as ambitious as BSix.
However, that isn't to say that universities can do nothing. They should not be deflected by the hysteria of the press or, for that matter, excused by the good intentions of conscientious colleges. All the evidence suggests that, while A levels may be the best predictor of how students will do at university, they are not foolproof. Study after study shows that, on average, a state school pupil at university will match or outperform a privately educated one with equal or slightly better A levels.
Universities are interested in potential. They should use their discretion to find it. That does not mean admitting pupils who cannot cope. It does not mean slapping crude quotas on institutions and expecting them to comply regardless of the quality of individuals. It does not mean depriving universities of their autonomy to decide whom they would like to admit.
But it does mean that universities should not necessarily regard all A-level candidates equally. If admissions officers suspect that a couple of As and a B require more effort to achieve at one school than another, they should take that into account. If they think a student's potential is not reflected in his or her grades, they should make a lower offer. That is what fair access means. And if the defenders of privilege don't like it, they should be told to take a hike.