Clare College Accused of `Positive Discrimination' ; ELITISM ROW Laura Spence Case and `Independent' Articles Prompt Flood of State School Applications and Complaints from Private Heads

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RECORD NUMBERS of state schools have applied to Clare College, Cambridge, after The Independent's account of the college's efforts to encourage more state school applicants.

A series of articles earlier this year explained how, for the first time, admissions tutors awarded extra points last year to candidates from schools with poor A-level scores, making allowance for social and educational disadvantage.

Angry independent school heads said the college was operating "positive discrimination", but the points allocated for disadvantage made up only a tiny proportion of the total score. This year, the proportion of state school pupils applying to Clare has risen from 56 per cent to 65 per cent. More than 100 applications from a total of 610 have come from pupils at comprehensive schools making their first applications to Clare.

The articles in The Independent were published before the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, said that Oxford University's rejection of Laura Spence, a Tyneside comprehensive school pupil who achieved outstanding A-level results, was "scandalous".

Professor Bob Hepple, Master of Clare, said: "Last year, we opened our admissions to detailed scrutiny by The Independent. We are delighted that this has encouraged excellent candidates from a wider range of schools than might normally have applied. We have done this without applying quotas of any kind."

Oxford and Cambridge colleges had said state school pupils were reluctant to apply, but tutors at Clare believe it is possible to attract state school candidates if they believe they will get a fair deal. Dr Polly O'Hanlon, Clare's senior tutor, said: "People are not applying here because they think they will be at an advantage but because ... they feel they will not be at a disadvantage."

Interviews for Cambridge places begin this week. This year, Emmanuel College has decided to take the GCSE performance of applicants' schools into account in assessments. Robert Henderson, the college's acting senior tutor, said: "Our minds have been concentrated as a result of Gordon Brown's comments. Many of our applicants have a lot of As at GCSE. It could be that getting a set of As at some schools is a bigger achievement than it is at others."

Some independent schools appear to have been put off by the publicity about Clare's efforts to attract more state school pupils; one head wrote to the college to say his pupil was applying to Clare despite his best efforts to dissuade him.

But there are 185 applicants from independent schools, including 40 from schools that have not sent candidates before. …