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Scotland must bridge the opportunity gap

We have been hearing for months about the injustice of university fees, the north-south divide which favours Scottish students with free higher education. More than a third of English universities plan to charge the maximum pound;9,000 annual tuition fee from 2012, and the Scottish Government has played tit for tat by allowing Scottish universities to slap similar charges on English students coming north. Unfair - racial discrimination, protest the English. But there will be many up here who think "quite right, too".

It's an unfair world, however you look at it. That is not just reflected in university fees - the selection process is equally bewildering, with Oxbridge in particular being a law unto itself - remember Laura Spence, the Tyneside pupil with 5 As at A-level, who was rejected by Oxford and awarded a scholarship by Harvard? Things may have improved in the intervening decade but not much, judging by the Sutton Trust's research published last week (pp 5, 8). Four independent schools and one college (all south England) secured more places than 2,000 schools combined. Scottish students scarcely got a look-in: of the 100 top schools for getting pupils into Oxbridge, only one was Scottish - Fettes College; of the top 100 UK state schools (selective included), it was only seven.

Social class clearly plays a part. In the wider picture of comprehensive pupils entering the top 30 UK universities, Scottish comprehensives have fared remarkably well. Look more closely, though, and you'll see many are in East Renfrewshire, the west end of Glasgow and East Dunbartonshire - not your average catchment areas. Whether it's down to families being able to afford to send youngsters south and pay the fees, or simply encouraging them to spread their wings, parent power still counts.

It's the same power that sends children to the Saturday schools featured in this week's News Focus (p10). These too are aspirational parents, who recognise the value of bilingualism whether they are German, Spanish, Russian or Chinese. You don't have to be foreign to appreciate the benefits - witness the parents who send their children to the Alliance Francaise or Goethe Institute to boost their fluency in a foreign language - but it helps to be middle class and to have a family or holiday home abroad.

So, no, life isn't fair, whether it's the north-south or east end-west end divide. What is important, though, is that our politicians, national and local, strive to bridge the gap. Free higher education for all is one way of doing it if the sums can be made to add up. Giving all children the chance to learn two languages in addition to their own is another, if the Government can fulfil its manifesto promise. The fact that a school like St Luke's High, Barrhead, with a fifth of pupils on free school meals, features at 16 in the top 20 UK comprehensives shows it can be done.

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