Potential university entrants from state schools should be asked for lower A-level grades than their independent-school counterparts, a funding council study suggests.
The work, by analysts at the Higher Education Funding Council for England, found that state-school pupils did better at university than their independent counterparts with the same entry qualifications. The difference was equivalent to two A-level grades.
Bahram Bekhradnia, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute and director of policy at Hefce when the study began, said: "Pupils from independent schools with a given score at A level perform significantly less well at university than their state-school peers.
"Institutions may well be justified in making more demanding offers to candidates from independent schools, who will on average perform less well than their state-school peers with equivalent A-level grades."
The study aimed to see whether students from poorly performing schools did better at university than those from better performing schools, all other things being equal. Its interim results were presented at this week's "Fair Enough?" conference on widening access to higher education by identifying potential to succeed.
It found no clear relationship between a school's performance on average and the expected performance of all its pupils in higher education, given their A-level grades.
Although there was no general school effect, there was an independent-school effect. Mr Bekhradnia said that a better education and a better preparation for exams could explain the effect.
At university, however, both former independent and state-school pupils received the same treatment.
Despite identifying a difference between the higher education performance of former state-school and independent-school pupils, the study holds to the importance of A levels in predicting success. It states: "There is a long-standing belief that achievement at A level bears little relationship to what happens once students start their degree courses. Of course, it is true that students' higher education achievements are not totally determined by their A-level results. The point is that no other single item of information provides a better indication of how a student will get on."
The study was based on full-time undergraduates entering higher education directly from school or college aged 18 in 1997. For each student, it looked at A-level points, subject of higher education study, length of course and sex. The study also considered the average A-level points of entrants at each institution and the school performance, type and whether it was co-ed or single sex.
The full report will be published after the study is completed later this year.