PRIVATE school teachers have been coaching state pupils for Oxbridge entrance in a scheme which has been hailed as an example for others to follow.
The pilot project, started at Manchester Grammar School last year, is one initiative highlighted in a report this week which calls for radical reform of university admissions.
The report, published by the Sutton Trust education charity, follows the case of Laura Spence, a comprehensive pupil rejected by Oxford University.
The issue led to clashes between Prime Minister Tony Blair and Tory leader William Hague, who accused Labour of being controlled by a "liberal elite" which had ruined education.
Mr Blair said his Government stood for opportunity for all. In an attempt to defuse the row, he said neither he nor Chancellor Gordon Brown - who had labelled Oxford's rejection of the student "scandalous" - wanted to see standards levelled down.
But he warned of "hard choices: if we want to invest in education, tax cuts can't come instead of that investment".
Mr Hague said a Tory government would abolish targets for cutting exclusions and scrap in-school sin bins as part of its "free schools" plans.
The Manchester scheme - funded by the Sutton Trust - was described by the school's High Master, Dr Martin Stephen, as a chance for state pupils that their own schools could not afford.
"The tremendous advantage for all the students was the opportunity to take part in seminars with people of similar ability. They learned as much from each other as they did from the teachers," he said.
"This is not about elitism, but about specialisation. Only a tiny minority of the school populace are going to qualify for Oxford or Cambridge.
"Large numbers of excellent schools can afford to devote time to prepare pupils for that kind of entry. But for the sort of scool that might be sending only one or two pupils to Oxbridge - how fair is it to put a huge amount of limited resources into coaching them?"
Although 82 pupils from schools all over the city applied to the Manchester grammar scheme, 47 dropped out at the mention of written work. Ultimately five secured Oxbridge places - a figure Dr Stephen described as "reasonable".
Three students at Ridge Danyers sixth-form college in Cheadle, Greater Manchester, took part and each secured a place at Oxford or Cambridge.
Senior tutor Alan Cooper said: "The scheme is one of an armoury of things that we offer. I could not speak more highly of it. It enhances students' social skills and shows them that they are as good as we say they are."
The Sutton Trust found that independent school pupils had a 25 times greater chance of getting into a top university than state pupils from lower social classes or who live in poor areas.
Compared to independent-school pupils, fewer state students who are capable of getting into top universities actually apply and they are less successful at securing places when they do.
Peter Lampl, the trust's chairman, said: "The talent is out there waiting to be tapped. Statistics show that with proper recruitment and admissions procedures, leading universities are able to increase significantly the proportion of students from comprehensives without lowering A-level entry requirements".
* Top universities should recruit talent-spotters to headhunt star state school pupils, as is done in the United States.
* An aptitude test should be introduced, and run in conjunction with GCSEs and A-levels, to measure pupils' potential.
* Access initiatives such as summer and Saturday schools run with universities, should be expanded.
* A-level results should be made available before university admissions decisions are made, rather than relying on predicted grades.
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