State schools are letting down their brightest pupils by failing to put enough of them forward for Oxbridge university places, the Conservatives said this week.
Nick Gibb, the shadow schools minister, believes teachers' desire to protect their students from failure is stopping them from encouraging more to apply to the country's elite universities.
His comments came as the National Council for Educational Excellence, set up by Gordon Brown to build links between business and education, called for schools to encourage poorer pupils to study at "the most selective" universities.
State-educated students are massively under-represented at both Oxford and Cambridge, which have come under increasing pressure to change their intake.
But Mr Gibb told a conference fringe meeting that state schools caused much of the problem. In secondaries, he often discovered that only a fraction of pupils with straight A grades at A-level had actually applied to Oxbridge.
"Normally you find a school has one or two pupils with Oxbridge places after putting in four or five applications," he told The TES afterwards. "But the same school will have 20 pupils that achieved three As. There is a discrepancy there that is baffling.
"The answer given by the school is that Oxbridge courses are not right for these children. But I don't know how 16- to 17-year-olds know what courses they want to do in that level of detail. The state sector needs to do more to push them."
Top public school heads had told him they managed to send large numbers of pupils to top universities because they encouraged so many to apply.
Mr Gibb, who settled for a place at Durham University after failing to get into Cambridge despite achieving four A grade A-levels and two S levels at a Wakefield comprehensive, argues it is fear of failure holding back state schools.
"The concern is that there is a reluctance to put too many children in for Oxbridge in case they fail," he said. "But the reality is some of them may well have succeeded. If they fail, as I did, it is not going to damage them for the rest of their lives. It is a learning experience. Children need to learn to fail."
'WE'RE NOT REALLY SERGEANT MAJORS'
"A submarine is a pressured environment with lots of personalities all crammed in one space. A school can be a lot like that."
Nathan Jones (left) spent more than five years as a Royal Navy submariner, and is now a non-teaching head-of-year at Hindley Community High School, near Wigan, Lancashire.
This week the Conservative party announced it would like to see many more former servicemen and women working in schools as teachers and support staff.
Michael Gove, the shadow schools secretary, told delegates in Birmingham that a Tory government would help former soldiers, sailors and airmen who wanted to work with young people to move into teaching as quickly possible.
His plan would involve 200 veterans who already have a degree receiving a Pounds 9,000 teacher training bursary. At the moment only 68 former servicemen go into teacher training every year.
Jane Lees, headteacher of Hindley High and president of the Association of School and College Leaders, welcomes the move.
"Any sort of background in the police and armed forces does make you look twice at candidates for teaching and non-teaching jobs in a good way," she said. "Clearly these people understand frameworks and behaviour and have certain standards.
"They are the right people to support our children." But she stresses it is not about "banging them on the head with a big stick".
That is not impression you would get from headlines this week which screamed "Send in army to sort out schools" and "Soldiers recruited to give schools a taste of discipline".
Chris Keates, the general secretary of the NASUWT, resented the implication that "schools are in chaos and pupils are out of control". "It is a travesty of the true position," she said.
Helen Hillman (pictured with Nathan Jones) a former military police corporal, who now manages all Hindley High's heads of year, feels that the sergeant major image suggested is inaccurate and unhelpful.
"It is a bit severe to be honest," she said. "In schools it is about managing pupils' behaviour and supporting them really. Children today don't take well to being shouted at."
Photograph: Joan Russell.