Top universities are being urged to pilot American-style Scholastic Assessment Tests after evidence that they increase academic opportunities for bright students from poor backgrounds.
The Sutton Trust has called on universities, including the country's leading research institutions, to volunteer to run Sat pilots next year in conjunction with schools and colleges. The Higher Education Funding Council for England has said it would be willing to assist the trust and volunteer universities.
A report, published by the trust this week, shows that Sats could help United Kingdom universities identify bright pupils who, simply because they attend state schools in underprivileged areas, find it harder to gain the A-level grades necessary for universities such as Oxford and Cambridge.
Trust chairman Peter Lampl urged universities to volunteer for the pilots. He challenged institutions to break the UK higher education "mindset" of short-termism whereby A-level success is used as a fairly reliable predictor of degree success.
Mr Lampl said: "Are [UK universities] actually selecting the people who will get the best degree? Universities in the United States take a much longer-term view. They are taking kids from poorer backgrounds and looking ten or 20 years ahead, when many of these graduates will be phenomenally successful."
Mr Lampl said that US institutions could count on wealthy graduates, who had come from poor families, giving substantial financial gifts as they felt they owed much to their Ivy League education. Successful graduates also bolster institutional prestige.
Findings in the report, produced for the trust by the National Foundation for Educational Research, are based on a pilot study of pupils taking a short version of the US-style Sats and A levels in 70 secondary schools - state schools with poor A-level records, high-achieving state schools and independent schools.
The findings show that 30 pupils from schools, with low A-level success rates, achieved Sat scores sufficient to be considered for entry to US Ivy League universities. But only one student gained three A levels at grade A, now seen as standard for entry to many of Britain's top institutions.
Sats are no better than A levels in assessing pupils' potential for study at university, independently of their social or previous educational backgrounds, according to the report. But Sats do measure "something different" from A levels and may be useful in predicting university performance, it says.
Education secretary David Blunkett has welcomed the report and is studying its findings. Baroness Warwick, chief executive of Universities UK, said UUK was happy to discuss the issue further with the Sutton Trust.
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