Simulacra and simulation to make dreaming spires reality

Inside a Hackney sixth form, a mini Oxford gives pupils an appetite and an aspiration for higher study. Joseph Lee writes

March 15, 2012

Credit: Genesis Graphics
You're not in Hackney any more: pupils respond to the academic challenge and the unfamiliar setting, Claus says

Peter Claus, senior research fellow in history at Pembroke College, Oxford, sits in his office. It resembles many that one would find in the ancient university: it has an antique desk, book-lined walls, a leather chesterfield and a large table where his students gather for seminars. Outside is a garden adorned with Neo-Classical sculpture.

However, beyond the garden walls are not the University of Oxford's dreaming spires but Hackney's "murder mile", otherwise known as Upper Clapton Road.

This is Claus' other office, set up in a room at BSix Brooke House Sixth Form College in East London. Here, he typically spends three days a week teaching students applying for places at Russell Group universities. They follow a programme intended to replicate as closely as possible a year of study at Oxford - hence the donnish illusion.

Claus jokes that the office - known as the Red Room - is "significantly better" with "much higher-quality" furniture than its equivalent in the real Oxford. But he is deadly serious about pursuing the aim of offering East End teenagers an intensive introduction to the way Oxbridge works.

"This isn't a stunt," he says. "It's much worse than that. We really are this mad."

His commitment to creating opportunities for teenagers from poor backgrounds perhaps has its origins in his own circuitous route to the academic high table. Claus left school without A levels in the early 1980s and took up work on building sites, labouring and driving. In his twenties he became a Labour councillor and was encouraged to attend Ruskin College, the Oxford-based adult residential institution founded to provide university-standard education to the working classes.

"It gave me a sense of the value of the tutorial system and intensive work with non-traditional students. And it made me absolutely convinced that you could take students from fairly low educational levels quite a long way," he says.

Claus met Ken Warman, BSix's principal, when he worked at the University of East London and Warman ran Tower Hamlets College's sixth-form centre.

The duo collaborated on projects for Aimhigher, the state-funded programme to encourage progression to higher education, which was scrapped last year. They thought its access work was both vital and insufficient, and so hatched a plan to offer a more ambitious project that turned some of the ideology of widening participation on its head.

Instead of making a concerted effort to convince young people from poor backgrounds that Oxford and Cambridge are, despite all appearances to the contrary, normal places, Claus and Warman prefer to stress their unfamiliarity - and the sheer difficulty of applying.

"Our experience is the more unfamiliar it is, the more [the pupils] like it," Warman says.

The Red Room's Oxbridge trappings are intended to elicit a bit of shock and awe. "It does transport the kids when they come down the corridor and knock on the door: they just go, 'Wow'," says Claus. "It's also a useful device: whatever you do elsewhere in college, that's fine, but when you walk in here, you're at university. They behave differently. Intimidated? I'd say challenged."

Alongside this is an intense focus on academic subjects rather than the appeal of the student lifestyle or the potential career benefits of gaining degrees from elite universities.

"Students gel around their subjects," Claus says. "In one seminar, on one side was a kid from India and on the other one from Northern Ireland. What they had in common was a...passion for their subject."

This year, the first that Claus has spent as "visiting fellow" at BSix, there are 25 students on the Pem-Brooke programme. They are selected by interview at Pembroke College and need not even be enrolled at BSix: the initiative is also open to local schools.

Prior attainment is also not necessary - one of the first students on the programme had dropped out of school with no GCSEs. Two years later he was studying history and politics at university, having earned straight As. Three students this year have offers from Oxbridge and places at Russell Group universities have risen fourfold.

But Claus fears that universities' anxieties over Office for Fair Access oversight will lead some to cut their academic requirements for poorer students. "It's going to be very tempting to say the widening-participation figures are going to look awful and to lower the bar. We stand against that," Claus says.

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