LAURA SPENCE, the state-school sixth-former who failed to get a place at Oxford to study medicine, seems to have re-
ignited political passions over education. Suddenly accusations of elitism and envy were being bandied about between Labour and the Tories.
Chancellor Gordon Brown's initial salvo was followed by a report from the independent charity, the Sutton Trust, which suggested that 11 out of the top 13 universities discriminate against candidates from state schools and underprivileged backgrounds.
The report showed that whatever the merits of Ms Spence's particular case (and doubts have been cast on whether she was any better than the accepted candidates) state school pupils are significantly under-represented at Britain's best universities.
It also suggests that, even if state school pupils were given the places their grades deserve, they would still be under-represented at top universities. Although 93 per cent of children go through the state school system they make up only 65 per cent of those getting three A grades or better.
John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, believes that universities need to do more to seek out talent.
"It's up to the universities to level the playing field for all entrants," he said. "A-levels are not a good indicator of performance at university. The scholastic aptitude tests which they use in America might be a better indicator of performance, they could be used alongside A-levels."
But others believe that the schools system has to shoulder its share of responsibility. Professor Alan Smithers of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Liverpool University is one of them. He believes that universities cannot be expected to take on state-school pupils whose grades do not match their private-school counterparts.
"I support opportunity for all but it has to operate from birth onwards. If you try to impose it at 18 people are at very different stages. Unless you give people equal opportunities all the way through all you are going to do is make things less fair," he says.
David Blunkett was angry about Mr Brown's intervention, not just because the Chancellor was moving onto his turf, but also because he has been careful to protect Labour from charges of attacking excellence. While Labour may introduce targets for universities admissions from underprivileged groups, the emphasis is likely to remain on improving standards at state schools.
According to his analysis, if genuine equality of opportunity is to be achieved then the Government will have to close the achievement gap that exists between private and state schools.
But private schools have three key advantages. On average they spend twice as much per pupil as state schools, the majority of their pupils are from well off families and most of their pupils are aiming for the same thing - higher education.
By contrast a comprehensive school in a deprived area will be teaching many children whose main ambition is to leave school as soon as possible.
So what can be done? Ministers point to the efforts to raise literacy and numeracy in primary schools, the increase in the number of specialist schools and their Excellence in Cities programme as evidence that they are trying to give deprived children in state schools an equal chance of getting to university.
Te latter includes links between inner-city schools and top universities and the requirement for schools to have specific programmes for gifted pupils.
But critics argue that something more fundamental is necessary. Traditionally the Left has pushed for private schools to be stripped of their charitable status, in an attempt to level the playing field. But John Bangs, deputy general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, believes that arguments over VAT on school fees are a red herring. "Charitable status does advantage private schools but the main issue is not that but the funding difference," he said.
He believes that this allows private schools to have smaller class sizes. This, combined with the the greater freedom they enjoy over the curriculum, gives them an advantage.
But, given the competition for funds between government departments, state schools are unlikely to achieve financial parity. In the words of Professor Smithers: "That is one bullet the Government won't be prepared to bite."
It seems the opposition won't bite it either. Theresa May, Conservative education spokeswoman, said: "I'm slightly sceptical of some of the funding comparisons that are bandied about. I think the problem in the state sector is that the money going into the system doesn't actually get to the pupils."
Like the Government, Mrs May believes that schools must do more to encourage bright pupils from low-income families to aim for university. But she lines up alongside the NUT when she argues that schools' efforts to raise standards are being hampered by too much central control. "The way to improve things is to give schools freedom and to allow them to spend money how they want," she said.
Although ministers are unlikely to move away from their interventionist approach to education they have given schools more freedom in one small but potentially significant sense.
From September the new national curriculum will allow schools to provide a vocational programme for 14-year-olds who are uninterested in traditional academic lessons.
According to Professor Smithers, this approach could also be the key to giving bright pupils in state schools the same chances as their private-school counterparts. He argues that pupils should be split into three streams at 14 - academic, technical and vocational. "We need more differentiation within comprehensive schools. Pupils should be grouped according to ability and aspirations," he says.
Professor Smithers believes that this would make state schools more attractive to parents who currently go private by reassuring them that their children would be taught with like-minded pupils rather than those who no longer want to study.
He points to the fact that before the majority of grammar schools were abolished, Oxbridge was taking a higher percentage of state pupils than now.
A specialised academic stream could also replicate the sense of common purpose in private schools and reduce the peer pressure which encourages many pupils (especially boys) to affect disinterest in education.
But would a Labour government really introduce what amounts to a type of selection at 14? The curriculum reform and the increasing emphasis on diversity in secondary education suggest it might.
Professor Smithers is confident that it will. "I think the Government will move in this direction, in fact it is doing at the moment. Differentiation would, I hope, operate more by choice than selection."