Week in perspective

2nd June 2000 at 01:00
IT HAS been dubbed the War of Laura's Rejection, the Battle of Laura's Interview or - most pithily - the Battle of Laura's Brain.

The story of Laura Spence - the comprehensive schoolgirl with ten A-starred GCSE grades controversially rejected by Oxford University, but awarded a scholarship by Harvard - became the political event of the week after Chancellor Gordon Brown launched a scathing onslaught on academic elitism.

Claiming her rejection to be "an absolute scandal" he accused the university of operating an interview system which was more reminiscent of "the old boy network and the old school tie than of genuine justice in our society".

His criticism appeared to signal the start of a co-ordinated Labour attack on privilege, raising the prospect that equal opportunities in education will be an important theme in the general election, expected next spring.

Oxford has angrily rejected the Chancellor's claims, pointing to a record number of offers made to state school pupils this year - 53 per cent, compared with 47 per cent to independents.

Cabinet heavyweights weighed in, including Education Secretary David Blunkett, who said it was scandalous that a teenager of Laura's ability should be turned away, while being offered a scholarship to study at Harvard.

"In our society in the 21st century, youngsters who do well, from whatever background, should have the same opportunity of access to the highest possible quality of education, wherever they are and whoever they are," he said.

The Conservative leader William Hague hit back, accusing Labour of class-war politics. Writing in Wednesday's Daily Telegraph he accused the Chancellor of being "shamefully cynical" in aising Laura's case in the week she was due to sit her A levels.

Tory politicians and newspapers predicted Labour's attempt to capitalise on the issue would backfire. But with deputy prime minister John Prescott signalling that the country's top universities are to face cash penalties unless they do more to admit state school pupils, the battle is set to continue.

Away from the public eye, Gordon Brown is trying to decide priorities, as his fellow ministers draw up spending plans for the next three years.

Reports based on briefings with ministers have suggested that health, transport and education will get heavy investment under a Labour government (assuming it wins the election) - described by Andrew Dilnot, director of the independent Institute of Fiscal Studies on Radio 4's Today programme as "shed-loads of money".

A sign that universities are hoping to benefit - and cash in on the Laura Spence row - came with a report prepared for 19 top universities, leaked to The Times. This argues that universities should be free to set their own fees, and suggests students will have to be charged up to pound;6,000 a year unless funding rises.

Elsewhere this week, the Education Secretary told the National Association of Head Teachers conference he intends to cut the amount of paperwork in schools by half next year. He also promised more money would be passed directly to schools, so they would be less subject to the whim of local authorities.

Meanwhile, traditionalists campaigning to retain the controversial Section 28 - which bans the promotion of homosexuality - claimed victory after more than a million Scots voted in a privately-funded referendum to keep the clause.

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