Ready for take-off Ajay Sikri says he would never have tried for Oxford if his school hadn't made him think he could get in. But if he gets good enough grades to take up his place to read biological sciences next September he's unlikely to feel lonely. Four of his fellow pupils have Oxford offers, while almost half a dozen previous pupils are already studying there. Much the same is true for pupils going to Cambridge. In all, almost 50 students from his school have gone to Oxbridge over the past 10 years.
But the Heathland school, a predominantly Asian Hounslow comprehensive directly under the flight path to Heathrow, is about as far from the quiet courtyards of Oxbridge's traditional feeder schools as you can get. So how does it do it?
The answer is a closely focused "potential high achievers" (PHA) programme, which, says history teacher and Oxbridge co-ordinator Dan Collins, "establishes a culture where children have the confidence to be bright kids". He adds: "This was Hounslow's first purpose-built comprehensive, and the founding head had a philosophy that it would offer an education as good as a grammar school." This meant employing Oxbridge graduates, putting up honours boards, establishing firm discipline and building a reputation for academic excellence. As a result the 1,800-pupil school, with its sixth form of almost 500, is popular with local parents, although Mr Collins stresses that the school, where 60 per cent of pupils get five A-C grade GCSEs, is genuinely comprehensive and takes in all abilities from its far-from-affluent neighbourhood. "We probably devote more time to students at the other end of the scale than to the high-fliers," he says.
Each department identifies its own PHAs from Year 7 on, and gives them one piece of extension work per term, as well as additional trips and experiences. "We've just been to the battlesites in France and Belgium," says Daniel Langley, a new Year 9 PHA, who is happy to have joined the programme, having heard about it from friends who were already in it.
Pupils can be a PHA in one or many subjects, or made one for their leadership skills, and although the programme sounds divisive, students say it is optional, flexible, low-key, and open to others who want to join in. <> "At first, there's a big craze to be one," says Mona Salih-Abdulrahman, a Year 12 student. "It's like, 'They take you to the theatre', and you think, 'Wow'. But then you realise that it's in your own time, so you start to think, 'Oka a-a-y'."
But the end result is a group of poised, articulate students who may or may not get into Oxbridge, but who seem to have a quiet confidence in their worth and a warm appreciation of what the school has done for them. Year 13 students point to mock interviews, visiting speakers, opportunities to debate, and the support of their many tutors - - subject, personal, Oxbridge - - as bringing out the best in them. "But the school doesn't push you," says Raj Pal Singh, who has an offer to read maths and computer science at Oxford. "Some of us might have that traditional Asian family pressure thing behind us, but they always tell us to resist it."
Good relationships with a committed staff obviously lie at the heart of the school's success. Lana Kulas came to the UK from Bosnia and arrived at the school barely speaking English, but now has a place to read English at Oxford. "And the English department has been like my second home. I can't say too much about the English teachers here and what they've done for me."
Shivani Sedov, who arrived in the sixth form knowing nothing about the school, and who now has an offer to read geography, says: "I'd never have got a place at Cambridge if I'd stayed at my previous school. Here the tutors make you realise your full potential."
Elizabeth Mahmoud, whose elder son went on from Heathland to graduate with a first-class law degree from Oxford, says her younger son was reluctant to join what he saw as a high-flying school. "But once he was here he changed completely. He excelled beyond belief in Year 7. They gave him the confidence not to be scared to succeed." He, too, is now at Oxford.
Mr Collins says the school has always found its pupils treated well by Oxford and Cambridge, and believes charges of elitism against the universities are unfair. But he warns all his candidates that, with three or four well qualified candidates applying for each place, results will be a lottery. "It doesn't matter. We don't see not getting in as a failure."