The small set of offices next to a primary school in an unremarkable part of south London is a long way from the ancient honeyed architecture of Oxford. And, while I’m interviewing Donna Sinclair, CEO and founder of charity Options4Change, it occasionally feels like I’m being introduced to a front line I didn’t even know existed. Located in Lambeth – one of the most deprived districts in the country – this is the real world.

Set up in 2005 in response to “a lack of easy access to young people’s services”, Options4Change supports young people to achieve academic excellence. But children and their problems do not come in neat, easy packages. That means dealing with what Sinclair calls the “whole package”: creating aspirations for the future, dealing with children as well as their parents, education and gangs. It’s a two-pronged attack, focused on both encouraging aspirations and academic attainment, while trying to catch and support the children and parents who “just get left” by social services and the education system. It’s also about countering the negative approaches to young people’s welfare, instead trying to help young people make “lasting life achievements”. Sinclair calls the organisation “small, but influential”. According to conservative estimates by the charity, they contributed over £120,000 to Lambeth last year alone.

Throughout the interview Sinclair talks about the dysfunctional nature of what should be society’s last safety net.  She tells me about a 12 year old boy she knows. He witnessed a street shooting and a violent car incident. When his parents broke up, and the child developed depression, the GP called it a problem for the school to deal with. The school suggested the boy move to another school where he might be happier. There was no engagement from either party to address the problem. “But where is that frustration and anger going to go later?”, Sinclair asks.  

She tells me about children she knows personally who were ridiculed by their teachers for just saying they wanted to apply to university. A boy whose teachers colluded to keep him back a year doing nothing but reading a book each class. Why? Because he wrote to the headteacher complaining about his head of year.  It seems less surprising, then, that nationally only 40% of African-Caribbean children achieved five good GCSEs last year. Young black children are the second-worst performing ethnic group in schools.

And where do universities like Oxford figure in this system? Deprivation correlates with low academic achievement, especially with low entrance rates to top universities. What’s it like trying to get to Oxford from a Lambeth council estate? According to Sinclair, “You’ve got to be the absolute best. No-one wants to mould you, no-one believes that you can make it”. She says she knows many black boys who have talent and capability, but “no-one want to give them a chance to prove themselves”. Going to Oxbridge is a dream that’s so far beyond reality, it’s barely worth considering. “Who goes to Oxford? The echelon of society, and not just British society, any society. Not your local boy from down the road.”  Significantly, Sinclair tells me “it’s difficult to sell Oxford, because black kids don’t think it’s possible”.  

According to Sinclair, the cuts and the increase in university fees will simply exacerbate the problem. She tells me how she met Nick Clegg, who told her, “But you won’t have to pay a penny till you’re earning.” Her response is scathing. “It’s a debt!” To families earning minimum wage, the thought of paying £9,000 a year just for tuition is enough to put you off applying. As Sinclair puts it: “Everyone keeps saying we need to tighten our belts. But you can’t tighten your belts on lives.” Figures released on Monday show a fall of 9.9% in university applications in England – compared to a drop of only 1.5% in Scotland, where fees are not changing.

Sinclair is quick to stress she doesn’t think students should have everything done for them, “It should be no more difficult, by any measure, for any young person from any background”. Asked whether the university system is fair for young black people, her answer is direct: “No, it’s not fair. They’re there – if you look at the figures, they’re there. But they can only get into the ones it’s easy to get into.” When her son graduated from UCL two years ago, he was one of only two black people out of 200 students receiving degrees that afternoon. And it’s not just at university level: according to figures cited in a Cherwell article last year, out of 36,000 students in the UK getting AAA or better at A-level, only 452 were black. Sinclair tells me there are not enough school places for children in Lambeth. “There are lots of kids being temporarily educated at home…they’re not in our schools.” It’s a shocking revelation. As Sinclair exclaims, “They’re missing out on their most fundamental years!”

So what is the remedy? According to Sinclair it lies in grassroots and in Options4Change’s “people-centred approach”: the charity takes children to the House of Commons to meet MPs who themselves came from deprived areas, and Sinclair encourages children as young as six to start looking at career paths they hadn’t considered. “I get them researching astronauts!” she says. And what should the university do? “They should get out here, and start talking to charities like Options4Change.” I asked if she had heard anything from Jesus College, which is assigned Lambeth by the university’s regional outreach programme. Nothing, despite the charity’s links with Lambeth council and three of the London universities. When I mentioned the university’s Young Ambassadors program, the reaction was instantaneous. “But where are these students coming from? How are they meant to relate to the problems and obstacles kids from Lambeth have to overcome?” She was, however, highly supportive of the idea of charities like Teach First encouraging graduates of top universities to go into teaching – especially in difficult areas.

I came into the interview looking for neat, easy answers: grassroots initiatives, more funding for schools, the Big Society or that the big universities are simply not trying. But the picture that emerged was bigger than that. The theme that kept coming up is social architecture: the system set up in such a way that children in Lambeth have less support, fewer opportunities, and less access to education than their counterparts in more affluent areas. What I saw being laid out in front of me was a state and a society ignoring the needs and aspirations of young people in its deprived communities. And it’s more than a question of race. Sinclair points out it’s about culture, lifestyle, parenting, as well as the support systems the state is meant to provide.

Oxbridge, being the most selective educational aspect of that society, is a barometer for what is going on elsewhere.  Although the university must take some of the blame, the fact that a mere 32 black students were admitted this year is not just a comment on Oxford. The deeper issue at stake is that, as Sinclair put it, “Black kids aren’t even getting to the door.”