A college has become a model for the Government's efforts to widen university access. Joe Clancy reports
In 1921 a Jesuit priest founded a residential college with the aim of providing an education for the socially excluded and the working classes.
For most of the 80 years since, its work has gone largely unnoticed, but now Plater college in Oxford finds itself at the forefront of government policy.
With the Government setting targets to get 50 per cent of people into higher education and universities being urged to widen participation, Plater says that it has been showing the way forward for four-fifths of a century.
It takes mature students - mostly those who left school with few or no qualifications - and within a year gets them up to university entrance level and beyond.
It offers those who missed out on a formal education the opportunity to study for the Certificate of Higher Education, accredited by the Open university - equivalent to completing the first year of a conventional university degree.
Last year 94 per cent of the students who completed the course passed the certificate, and at least 41 of the 77 students have already used the qualification to secure a university place.
The college's principal, Robert Beckinsale, is scathing about the attempts of universities to "widen participation", accusing them of making no effort to reach out to the educationally disadvantaged.
He said: "Statistics to date have shown that where universities have attempted to widen participation, all they have succeeded in doing is ensuring that more less well-qualified people from the same section of society have got in.
"The increase in numbers of university entrants is all in the A to C socio-economic group and not in the lower social orders.
"Traditional universities do not want to address the learning needs of people with lower qualifications.
"Residential colleges are leading the way in genuinely widening participation, not just in increasing the numbers of students at university.
"It is really only colleges like ours that address the problem.
Universities don't want to talk about it because as far as they are concerned they are doing the job that the Government wants."
Plater prides itself on having entrance criteria that ask for "no qualifications, no fees, no age too old, no catch". It welcomes people with learning difficulties such as dyslexia and dyspraxia.
About 20 per cent of its intake are people who have had drug and alcohol problems and have been referred by support organisations after "getting clean".
"The only criterion we have for entry is whether applicants can make use of what we offer," Mr Beckinsale added. "We like them to be free of drugs and alcohol for six months before coming here.
"We need them to be clean and serene and we need to be convinced they will work hard to make a success of it.
"We are not just a bed-and-breakfast organisation. I want to see evidence of real progress towards a clear goal. We want them to learn new skills."
Two of the current crop of students have been offered places at Oxford university next year. One is Richard Wood, 37, who just a year ago was a factory worker and a heroin addict with a pound;100-a-week habit before turning his life around.
Now he has been offered a place at St Benet's Hall, Oxford, to study theology and philosophy on the condition that he passes his current course with a high 2:1 pass, which he is on course to achieve.
"It just shows what a wealth of wasted talent there is out there," Mr Beckinsale added.
Plater is one of five residential colleges in England offering adults with no qualifications the opportunity to gain a university entrance qualification within one year. There is also a college in Wales and another in Scotland.
The founder of Plater college, Father Charles Plater, was inspired by the work of another college in providing an education for the working classes, namely Ruskin, also in Oxford, founded in 1899.
"Father Plater was a great believer in social justice," Mr Beckinsale said.
"He looked at Ruskin college and liked what he saw, but one thing he thought was wrong was that it didn't have a chapel."
Though Plater is a Catholic college, nearly half its intake is from other faiths or no faith. Mr Beckinsale said: "It has never been 100 per cent Catholic.
"Entry is by interview. We do turn people down: those who we feel are looking for the easy option. We rejected about 10 per cent of applicants last year.
"We try to create an eclectic mix. We could not deal entirely with ex-homeless or ex-drug users. The peer group helps itself. That is a strong feature of residential colleges. The peer group is as effective at training people as the staff."
He added: "We believe in giving people a second chance. Feeling cared for and loved is part of making it work."
CORRECTION published in TES FE Focus, 26 March 2004: Denis Andreev and James (Jamie) Cunningham