Students at independent schools are up to four times more likely to achieve at least one A* at A level than state-educated pupils, according to a study that raises questions about whether the introduction of the grade has made access to highly selective universities more unequal.
The University of Cambridge’s examinations arm found that 23 per cent of England’s privately schooled A-level entrants got at least one A* in 2014, compared with 5.7 per cent of pupils from council-run comprehensives, and 8.5 per cent of candidates from academies.
Cambridge Assessment said 6.6 per cent of students at fee-paying schools achieved three A*s or better, compared with 1.2 per cent at comprehensives and 2 per cent at academies.
Since the A* was introduced in 2010, many leading universities have incorporated it into their entry requirements.
A separate study published by Cambridge Assessment last month suggests that this was with good reason. It found that students who achieved at least one A* were 40 per cent more likely to get a first or a 2:1 than students who did not.
But the same study found that state school leavers outperformed privately schooled students who got similar A-level results, being a third more likely to get a good degree. More effective teaching in private schools may leave their students with less untapped potential, the report suggested.
Neil Harrison, senior lecturer in education at the University of the West of England, said there was “no doubt” that the introduction of the A* grade had helped private schools get their pupils into leading universities.
“They have the resources and staff-student ratios to be able to push their pupils up into those grades,” Dr Harrison said. “Every time you stretch a grading system, it will be the middle classes and their institutions, such as independent schools, that will take advantage.”
However, Ucas analysis shows that entry rates to highly selective universities for poorer students have risen to a record high since the A* was introduced.
Richard Partington, senior admissions tutor at Churchill College, Cambridge, said that the cohort of state-educated students achieving top grades was growing faster than that in the independent sector.
“The pool of state-educated high achievers one can select from has enlarged in recent years,” he said.
Cambridge Assessment says that 12.6 per cent of A-level entrants achieved at least one A* in 2014, and 3.1 per cent achieved three.
While 55.7 per cent of the students achieving grades ABB or better were female, 56.3 per cent of candidates getting three A*s or better were male.