THE DEBATE around the case of Laura Spence, the Tyneside comprehensive school student denied a place at Oxford University, has highlighted aspects of the effects of both elitism in general and socio-economic deprivation in particular.
It is clearly true that our universities are populated by the children of the better-off: 17 per cent of the lower socio-economic groups go on to higher education, while 45 per cent of the higher groups do so. Hardly surprising, as a recent Treasury report claims that, looking at clusters of schools, the greatest indicator of success at examination time is the income of the parents.
The figures for 1999 show that in "difficult to let" estates in England, 25 per cent of children gain no GCSEs as compared to a national average of 5 per cent. There is no doubt that a similar gap exists in Scotland. Further, the report claims that national data show that maths and reading scores can be directly correlated to parental income.
At the "top" universities, nearly four out of every 10 students come from independent schools. This has led those favouring the continuation of this massive over-representation to put the blame on the state sector and teachers for failing to compete with these independent schools.
Yet the desire to look only at the raw exam results means that the social and economic context of what is spent per child is conveniently ignored. The latest figures for Scotland (and the picture is very similar in Britain as a whole) indicate that the average pupil:teacher ratio in independent schools is 10.6:1, while in state schools it is 18.6:1.
The independent schools thus have much smaller classes (particularly S1-S4) and consequent better interaction, outlined in all HMI Standards and Quality reports as essential to good learning, which itself leads to more discussion, dialogue and confidence building. This is much harder to achieve in the large classes in most state schools.
Yet the Government, in contrast to most of those involved in education, continues to argue that smaller classes in the secondary schools are not important to academic success. The smaller class sizes in the independent sector are possible because of the significantly greater amounts independent schools spend per pupl compared to the state sector - at least twice the level, and in some schools 10 times.
Fees in Britain (where overall 7 per cent of children attend independent schools) amounted to pound;3.2 billion in 1999, and charity status means that the independent schools can avoid most taxes on, for example, income, stocks, shares, trusts, property, inheritance and endowments, thus boosting overall spending per child.
Pro-rata, the education budget would have to be raised to well over pound;70 billion to level the playing field. (The spending this year is pound;41.2 billion, with pound;47.8 billion projected for next year.) Many of the independent schools are selective, but even without that it is no wonder that pupils from independent schools do better academically.
The Labour Party used to have as its declared aim the question of raising the standard in the state sector to such a level that even well-off parents would not choose private education for their children.
This is a pipedream without massive increases in spending, and at the very least dramatically reducing average class sizes in the state sector, without destroying subject choice. It is interesting that on the point of class sizes, a major issue for most teachers and parents and, one might have thought the Scottish Executive, the McCrone Report has nothing to offer, or even suggest.
Is this just carping and envy? If there is no link between the elitism and socio-economic disadvantage, then it can seem so. However, the two are linked. There are 3 million children in Britain (one in three in the Glasgow conurbation area) living in families below the official poverty line, and the wealth gap in Britain is growing under New Labour as it was under previous Conservative governments.
This is the challenge for the Scottish Parliament. All the welcome rhetoric of social inclusion does not alter the impact of poverty and its effects on education, and something has to be done about it.
And this brings us back to Laura Spence, who has now chosen to go to Harvard. Her case highlights the academic gap between the independent schools and the academically successful state ones, but it can be argued that an even bigger gulf exists between state schools in better-off areas and those in deprived districts.
Henry Maitles is head of modern studies, faculty of education, Strathclyde University.