A PACKAGE of initiatives worth up to pound;15 million aimed at tacking inequality in higher education was proposed this week, following the case of Laura Spence, the Tyneside teenager rejected by Oxford University.
The Monkseaton community high pupil found herself catapulted into the headlines, provoking a high-octane national debate when her headteacher revealed that, while Magdalen had turned her down to read medicine, Harvard University had awarded her a scholarship to study biochemistry.
Gordon Brown seized upon her story, saying it was a scandal. The Chancellor was the first in a procession of ministers to speak out against the forces of elitism.
The Conservative party countered, saying Labour was returning to old class-war roots. William Hague, the Tory leader, who went from a Yorkshire comprehensive to Magdalen, accused Mr Brown of shameful cynicism and of using the girl for his own political ends.
The Government disclosed that universities making an effort to recruit pupils from state schools and poor families would be awarded extra funds as part of July's comprehensive spending review.
Included in the Chancellor's package of the initiatives to tackle inequality is an "ambassadors" scheme, similar to that used by Harvard University, where full-time recruitment officers scour less advantaged areas looking for talented pupils.
The Government is also considering a range of new scholarships, dubbed "opportunity bursaries".
A private school A-level candidate is three times as likely to get three A grades as their state-school counterpart: 6.1 per cent of state school pupils get three As, compared to 18.3 per cent of private pupils.
But because of the greater numbers of state pupils these figures translate to an overall 56 per cent of all candidates with three As coming from the state system, compared with 44 per cent
from the private sector.
John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads' Association, said:
"This is not just a problem with Oxbridge. The number of students from deprived backgrounds going on to university is woefully low."
As the row began last week, the master of Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, told pupils at a north London comprehensive that an Oxbridge place was within their grasp, writes Julie Henry.
Professor Brian Johnston visited the School of St David and St Katherine, Hornsey, to set up a scholarship which could see the first student ever from the school attend Cambridge.
The professor admitted that there was bias in the system and said perhaps the interview process should be looked at. However, he said the comments by ministers were unhelpful.
He said: "Fitzwilliam has a good admissions record with 70 per cent of students coming from comprehensive schools.
"The record at other colleges is not as good but neither is the record for a number of other universities, such as Edinburgh and Manchester."