Give every school an Oxbridge place

Peter Wilbyargues that, instead of fiddling around with Saturday classes for bright children, we sho

Last weekend provided us with an example of new Labour spin at its most dazzling and dizzying. In the liberal, leftish Observer, we had "Britain's leading champion of progressive teaching" spearheading "a drive to keep middle-class children in inner-city state schools". Tim Brighouse, the supposedly "trendy" (he has long hair, you see) chief education officer for Birmingham, was triumphant; Chris Woodhead, the "traditionalist" chief inspector, was on the way out. In the right-wing Sunday Times, however, we had "an elite 10 per cent" of pupils to be "creamed off" and given special tuition. Mixed-ability teaching was dead; Labour left-wingers and the teachers' unions would be furious.

These contrasting stories were previews of the same announcement, which came the next day: that ministers will spend £350 million on inner-city comprehensives, of which a proportion will go on organising Saturday morning schools and suchlike for bright children. That Brighouse has already done something of the sort in Birmingham is confusing for both sides in the trench warfare that passes for educational debate in England. But it is important to grasp the real point of this and almost every other educational policy dreamt up by this government. It is that the liberal-minded, Islington-dwelling, media-employed, Tuscany-holidaying, polenta-eating people who buzz around new Labour are deeply and personally embarrassed by state schools.

They had hoped to send their children to their local neighbourhood comprehensive, as good community-minded parents should. Alas, it is too rough and too philistine for poor Henry and poor Sophie who are - well, you know - a little special and sensitive, and need to get on with their violin lessons. So they must, like the Blairs, search London for a comprehensive that isn't quite as other comprehensives are; or worse, like Harriet Harman, send a child to a grammar school; or, worst of all, like Trevor Phillips, pay fees for a private education. This is a peculiarly urban dilemma and, to an extraordinary extent, a dilemma that specially afflicts the incestuous world of London media, arts, politics, academia and its various hangers-on. Scarcely a week goes by without some agonised London media mother baring her soul on the subject in the national broadsheets.

The government's latest scheme may just help a small number of these parents to reconcile liberal principle and what they see as parental duty. A particularly agonised new Labour supporter may settle for the neighbourhood comprehensive if her child can be guaranteed a few lessons in music, Latin, advanced trigonometry or whatever at the posher London Oratory, alongside Euan Blair. But though money spent on inner-city comprehensives is always to be welcomed, I cannot see the scheme making the slightest difference to 99.9 per cent of the parents who send their children to private schools. They do so because they know their children stand a better chance of getting into elite universities, preferably Oxford and Cambridge. The classes are smaller, the teachers better, the equipment more modern, the buildings smarter. Because private schools can select out or kick out the dim and the disruptive, they can focus single-mindedly on A-level exams. (The use of expulsion and suspension, incidentally, explains nearly all those inner-city schools that we hear of being miraculously "turned round".) And because they send dozens of pupils to elite universities each year, they have the contacts and know-how to give their charges the best possible chance in what can still be a complex and daunting system.

The results are a social disaster. Only 7 per cent of the nation's children attend private schools, nearly all of them from high-income homes, yet they take nearly half the places at Oxford and Cambridge and more than a third at other elite universities such as Durham and Bristol. No other country has this educational apartheid or such crude self-perpetuating privilege. Both George Walden, the former Tory education minister, and Andrew Adonis, now in the No 10 policy unit, have written books about it. Labour ministers are right to be worried.

But almost everybody - Adonis is a partial exception - treats it as a supply-side problem. If only the state schools would pull their socks up, drop mixed-ability teaching (there's hardly any in comprehensives nowadays, as it happens, but that's incidental), raise their expectations, teach algebra and all the rest of it, they would supply more young people with good A-levels. The private schools would then wither away.

Like hell they would. If state school children did as well at A-level as their private sector counterparts, the private schools would simply invent new exams to, as they put it, "extend" their brightest pupils. The elite universities would, somehow, be convinced that A-levels had been diluted and that they needed to take account of these new qualifications in student selection. Indeed, you can already see the private sector making such dispositions, in advance of government proposals to reform A-levels. It is, after all, in business. It has cornered a market. It will not let it go without an enormous fight.

So what's the answer? It's actually very simple. We change the whole basis of elite university selection. Each year, Oxford and Cambridge, between them, admit 6,000 UK undergraduates. There are, I would estimate, about 6,000 schools and colleges that have young people taking A-levels. The top pupil from each should get a place at one of the two universities.

Yes, I know it's shockingly crude and I don't mean it quite like that. You would have to include the likes of Bristol, Durham, Manchester, Warwick and the London University colleges and select, say, the top half-dozen from each school to allow some flexibility. You would have to take some account of size of school or college. You would set some minimum threshold of A-level achievement (below what is now needed for elite universities, but not dramatically so). There's no space here for the details; what matters is the principle.

That principle is arbitrary, unfair and unthinkable. But is it more arbitrary, unfair and unthinkable than a system that selects a socially privileged minority for so many university places? And think how the landscape of schooling would be transformed. There would be no incentive whatever - save social snobbery, of which there is, admittedly, a lot about - for parents to send their children to Eton, Westminster or Manchester Grammar. They would calculate that their children's university entry chances would be better at inner-city comprehensives. The private schools would collapse overnight. Even the housing market might be transformed, as parents clamoured to get into the catchment areas for "sink" schools where they would judge the competition less demanding. The implications for our society, when you think about them, are utterly mind-blowing.

And standards would fall? Well, no. There's no evidence that a few A-level points either way predict how well a student will do at university. The influx of ambitious, middle-class parents into inner-city comprehensives would surely raise standards. Quite possibly, the type of people who make it to elite universities wouldn't change all that much. But at least we would be rid of our vicious educational apartheid - and, as a useful by-product, of all those moaning media mothers in the broadsheets.

Well, if anyone's got a better answer, I'd like to hear it.