There was a curious story on page three of the Sunday Times at the weekend. With the headline "Universities told to favour poor schools", it concerned one of the most intriguing institutions created by Gordon Brown's government when it was still in its full honeymoon flush.
The National Council for Educational Excellence (NCEE), chaired jointly by the Prime Minister and his two secretaries of state, Ed Balls (Schools) and John Denham (Universities), was intended as a marker of Brown's intentions. The council, made up of people from the business world, headteachers, college principals and university vice-chancellors, has now made its recommendations to ministers. The news is that the NCEE has thought the genuinely unthinkable. In order to increase the numbers of students from poorer families attending the country's top universities, admissions tutors will be encouraged to take into account prospective students' school and social background.
As a former education correspondent, I know that the story has always to be that standards are falling, so it was no surprise that a genuine scoop was turned into a classic tale of "dumbing down". According to the news report, the NCEE was to recommend giving preferential treatment to students from bad schools. Independent schools, which depend for their very financial existence on their ability to deliver a certain number of Oxbridge places a year, were said to be up in arms about the new arrangements. Certain top universities are already running schemes to help boost the numbers of state school students. At that most significant focus group of all, the north London dinner party, parents with children at private schools are talking of moving them to state sixth forms to give them a better chance of getting into a good university. The thought that children from less privileged backgrounds might be given a fighting chance is sending shivers through the chattering classes.
It is impossible to deny the injustice of the present set-up. It may come as no surprise that only a third of university students come from the lowest socio-economic group and that only one in ten in this group attends Oxford or Cambridge. But it is not justifiable. Gordon Brown knows that new Labour has made too little difference to social mobility in this country, which is one of the reasons why he felt it was so important to establish the NCEE. The fact that, after a decade in power of Labour, the educational chances of a British child still depend largely on the wealth of his or her parents is indefensible.
The NCEE is the sort of institution that supporters of a Gordon Brown premiership hoped he would set up: radical, high-minded and egalitarian in sprit. Its remit is necessarily far wider than university admissions alone. It is designed to advise ministers on how to push up standards in underperforming state schools so they reach the national average and ensure that mediocre schools aspire to the highest levels of achievement for their pupils (whatever their capabilities or talents).
I had a previously arranged meeting with Alison Richard, vice-chancellor of Cambridge University, the day after news of the NCEE recommendations broke. As a member of the council, she refused to confirm or deny the newspaper reports, but was furious that the dumbing-down argument had again been wheeled out. She is right to be angry. How can it possibly be a bad idea to widen the pool of talent from which our top universities select their students? Everyone but the less talented children of the privileged benefits from the new arrangements.
I needed little persuading of the need for reform, but Richard, a former professor of anthropology at Yale, sat me down and presented to me a set of devastating statistics. Each year, for instance, 3,000 students whose qualifications mean they could be at one of the 13 most academic institutions in the country (the so-called Russell Group) simply do not apply. At the other end of the spectrum, of the 600,000 students who reach 16 each year, more than 300,000 fail to get five GCSEs at grades A-C. This is a national scandal in itself, as most of these children come from the lowest social groups.
If that weren't enough of an indication that we have collectively failed to provide a decent education for the poorest in society, then her final statistic was even more shocking. Of the children from the lowest social group who had performed badly at 16, a staggering 60,000 were at some point shown to have been in the top 20 per cent of the school population in academic performance.
So, as Professor Richard recognises, the problems stretch much further than the children with good A-levels from state schools not applying to the top universities. This is embedded deep in our culture. Take the case of Majid Ahmed, a remarkable 18-year-old from Bradford who won a place at Imperial College, London to read medicine after turning his back on a life of crime. When he admitted a conviction for burglary, Imperial told him he was no longer welcome on the course.
We are living in a post-egalitarian world, where we may talk the language of social mobility but do little to make a practical difference. The reality is that we are stuck. And the decision by Imperial College to withdraw that offer of a place to Majid Ahmed shows just how stuck we are.