Lord Mandelson, himself an Oxford graduate from a maintained school, has raised the old cry: down with elitism, pull apart the ivory towers. The word "university" does not feature in the title of his department, BIS (Business, Innovation and Skills, in case anyone has forgotten), and it's not surprising, given the depth of ignorance and misunderstanding of the universities shown by the noble Lord.
Deep at the heart of the misunderstanding is the apparently ineradicable confusion of social class and intellectual elite. No one uses the word "elite" in its pejorative sense except in the context of education. This is because respect for education has, since the Second World War, been almost confined to the middle classes, to parents who are themselves educated and to teachers who believe that their pupils have a right to aim for the top. There are exceptions to this rule but, in general, academic ambition is not encouraged in British schools. It is regarded as intrinsically snobbish.
Thus, the reason why it is so hard for the Russell Group of universities to admit students from state schools is that they do not wish to apply. It is not that they think entry is beyond them, but they will not tangle with the toffs and the snobs. "Uni" for them must be like the sixth form of their school: relaxed (apart from exams), friendly, not particularly hard-working, with a lot of time to go out in the evenings. In fact, it will be better, because they will be away from home.
At least since 1949, when my husband and I both started teaching, Oxford colleges have actively sought pupils from state schools. Indeed, when my husband was senior tutor of Magdalen, he was visited by two enraged school masters from Winchester, his old school, accusing him of turning down good Wykehamist candidates in favour of grammar school boys.
And he probably did. But these were indeed grammar school boys. Grammar schools were the great lever by which children from disadvantaged homes could be lifted to the ranks of the academic elite. Social class was not the issue (though doubtless children with educated parents were more likely to get a grammar school place than those whose parents had no interest in education; but this is a difference that can't be eliminated, unless a rule were adopted forbidding the children of graduates from going to university themselves).
Undoubtedly the 11-plus favoured the middle classes; and 11 was too early for such a momentous decision to be taken. It can't be denied either that the original Butler plan, to have technical as well as grammar schools, with equally selective, though different, entry requirements never had a chance to prove its worth.
Parity of esteem between the three kinds of school never could have existed. If a child had failed to get into a prestigious school, the school he or she ended up in was not likely to be highly regarded. We cannot now revive the grammar schools. But the Labour Party, in particular, ought to reflect on the glory of its past, and calculate the numbers of ministers who went from grammar school to Oxford, Cambridge, or one of the rest of the Russell Group. Many, now long dead, acknowledged freely that they would never have made it to the Cabinet if it hadn't been for the grammar schools.
The obvious point is this: if a child goes to a school that does not think highly of education or academic precocity, and if that child has parents who are not interested either, then the child will not flourish academically between the ages of five and 18. It is far too late when the child is 18 to begin to teach him how to read analytically, how to write comprehensively, to learn languages in depth, to think for himself yet with due regard to what others have thought, to use his scientific or mathematical imagination, or to speculate freely about the nature of the world. Such habits of mind cannot be learned in a day. Summer schools may help enormously. But children who attend them must want to go, and most will not.
But now, there is the opportunity for radical change. We can use the new concept of post-14 education to group those pupils who really love their subject, scientific, mathematical or historical, into the high-flyers. If these pupils are in short supply in one school, they must go to another for either some, or all, of their classes. They will thus benefit from like-minded contemporaries who are prepared to work and are anxious to do so. They will want to apply to the best universities. It cannot be the sole responsibility of those universities to entice them. It is the Government that must change the system.