The S level examination for high-flying sixth-formers is set to make a comeback after more than a decade in the doldrums. Some admissions tutors are predicting that it could become an essential entrance qualification for an Oxbridge-led premier league of universities.
Sir Ron Dearing, the Government's adviser on 16-19 education, is expected to call for the S level to be made a central part of the university admissions process when his long-awaited review is published later this month.
But Sir Ron is worried by evidence that the number of S level awards has halved over the past five years. While 1,679 students took the Associated Examinations Board S levels in 1990, only 891 took them in 1995.
He is expected to propose that the specialist examination be accorded points on the A level scale to ensure that schools and universities take it seriously.
Tony Higgins, chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, said that the S level would be given points in the revised tariff due to be presented in draft form to universities in August.
Top-flight universities are expected to welcome the return of the S level. Ruth Deech, principal of St Anne's College in Oxford and chair of the university's admissions board, said: "As most of our candidates offer three A grades, we have to find a way to pick and choose between them, so if the S level were to survive, we would consider it."
Sue Stobbs, chair of the Cambridge admissions board, said that Cambridge would be keen to support the S level, but only if it received backing from other non-Oxbridge institutions.
"It would work for a top ten rather than a top two," she said, adding that Cambridge would lobby the Russell group of universities.
Sir Ron is also expected to back the expansion of university-run associate student schemes which allow gifted prospective students to pursue elements of university courses while still at school. This would mean pupils taking units of Open University courses or enrolling at a local university.
Sir Ron's review is expected to outline three pathways for students - academic, applied and vocational.
He plans to change the name of General National Vocational Qualifications to Applied A levels and to match GNVQs to AS levels by grouping GNVQ units into sets of three.