Britain has the best schools in the world. Why else would leading figures in countries such as China and Russia send their children to learn here, rather than in their own educational systems? Their choice is not based on mere social aspiration: the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) has produced figures showing that British schools came top out of all 62 groups in science and maths.
Here's the hitch, though: this was a survey which divided schools in all countries into different groups according to type – and it was British independent schools which came at the very top, ahead of the independent sector in other countries; taken as a whole, British schools were well down the PISA league in Maths and Science.
This is a useful aide-memoire when considering the remark of the vice-chancellor of Cambridge University, Alison Richard, that there was too much political "meddling" in her business: "As institutions charged with education, research and training, our purpose is not to be construed as that of handmaidens of industry, implementers of the skills agenda, or indeed engines for promoting social justice.... We try to reach out to the best students, whatever their background. But promoting social mobility is not our core mission, [which] is to provide an outstanding education within a research setting."
Professor Richard's office has sought to downplay her remarks as an accusation of meddling by Government, but the language of her critique was a precision-bombing of the targets which New Labour has laid down for the Higher Educational system : no wonder John Denham, the Secretary of State for "Universities and Skills", is annoyed.
In fact, Professor Richard and her Oxbridge colleagues have been doing as much as they can – within the bounds of their academic consciences – to level the applications playing field. The special application form for Oxford and Cambridge – which was judged to be "scary" – has been abandoned. Six months ago Cambridge announced that it was to drop its requirement for applicants to have a language GCSE, largely because now under half of GCSE pupils at state schools study any foreign language. As the Director of Admissions for the Cambridge Colleges told the BBC: "This change will remove something which has, unfortunately, become a significant barrier impeding access to Cambridge."
Yet, if there is a barrier between pupils from the state sector and Oxbridge, it is worth asking who is responsible for erecting it. From all that I know, Oxford and Cambridge colleges are obsessed with the desire to take students who have the greatest natural aptitude and hunger for knowledge. The last undergraduates they want are the idle rich whose social ease masks an underlying intellectual inadequacy. Such universities, after all, are in an increasingly ferocious international battle for academic talent – as Professor Richard would know more than most: she was previously the provost of Yale.
If it were truly the case that, given similar results at A-levels, Oxford and Cambridge should be selecting a higher proportion of state school pupils, then you would have to believe that, across the board, undergraduates from the state sector do better than their rivals from independent schools in their finals. That is not the case, according to the most recent research, which showed that the A-level scores of graduates between 1976 and 2002 were exactly predictive of finals scores for both types of school – except in the case of science for males. Oddly, Oxford male science undergraduates from the state sector did better in their finals than those from the private sector – while at Cambridge it was the privately-educated male science undergraduates who outperformed their contemporaries from state schools; but in all other subjects, there were no such anomalies.
So who is imposing this "barrier to entry" into our elite universities? A clue to the answer was posted on the Independent's email notice board, underneath Johann Hari's article last week, entitled "Oxbridge walls that can't be scaled". The correspondent wrote: "I'm from Toxteth, Liverpool. I went to an inner-city comprehensive-and next month I start my third year at Cambridge. Where the problem really lies is in the attitude of schools. I applied to Cambridge on my own with no interview coaching and active opposition from my school: comprehensive schools often have an attitude of reverse snobbery towards Oxbridge... this is a battle that has to be fought on both sides of the applications process."
That this is more than mere anecdote is demonstrated by research conducted by the Sutton Trust, the educational charity set up by Sir Peter Lampl with the aim – in his words – of "widening the circle of opportunity". More than 80 per cent of the teachers in state schools who advise students on university applications told the Sutton Trust that they thought their students would "find it difficult to fit in to the top Universities, particularly Oxbridge".
This might explain why state school applications to Oxford and Cambridge have actually fallen in the past five years. Sir Peter's observations drew the following retort from Mike Goldstein, Vice Chancellor of Coventry University from 1992-2004: "Why should we be surprised if working-class students don't feel comfortable in applying to Oxbridge and the like – and why should we feel the need to change their views?... Forget about the research elite, and define "top universities" as those that truly contribute to social mobility and equity". This remark encapsulates what has gone wrong with our state system: not so much politicians who put social engineering ahead of education, as educationalists – so-called – who put their own hopelessly outdated political prejudices before the academic interests of their pupils.
Sir Peter Lampl was from a working-class background; his social ascent came via the grammar school system, where, as he put it, "bright boys were encouraged to aim for Oxbridge". That route is no longer open to the vast majority of British children; but thanks to the heroic work of (Lord) Andrew Adonis in promulgating city academies outside the dead political hand of local authorities, there is now an alternative – non-selective – route to self-advancement.
Rather than attack the independent sector for its unfair successfulness, the academies are taking the logical step of emulating its methods: including a high degree of discipline and respect for teachers' authority, symbolised by a much more formal dress code. Interestingly, this is being emulated on a wider scale: this term the state secondary school which my younger daughter attends has reintroduced school uniform, complete with blazer and (to her consternation) a tie.
Such apparently inconsequential acts are in fact the seeds of an educational counter-revolution – a return to high expectations and standards which have for too long been preserved only for those who choose to pay for them.