Middle-class young people with a family tradition of university education have been taking places on government summer schools designed to widen access to higher education for deprived groups.
The Department for Education and Employment has confirmed that more privileged children had been filling places on the Pounds 4 million Excellence in Cities initiative because too few students from deprived and non-traditional backgrounds met the criteria for the places. The scheme was supposed to be for students whose parents had not been to university, but who were talented enough to benefit from higher education themselves.
"Where there was the prospect of under-recruitment among the main client group, rather than leave places unfilled, other students were recruited who would nonetheless benefit," said a DFEE spokesman.
Too few students from non-traditional backgrounds have been put forward because schools target their high-fliers, who tend to come from more privileged backgrounds and have strong parental support, said Alan West, executive director of Exscitec, which arranges summer schools and masterclasses for students at Imperial College London.
"Schools have been asked to nominate students in the top 10 per cent achievement bracket," said Mr West, "so by the very nature of the scheme the more privileged students with the more supportive parental backgrounds have been going to the summer schools. Even in inner-city schools, the ones who stay on in sixth forms tend to be from the more traditional backgrounds."
Talented but deprived students from the further education sector have very little chance, he said. "I do not think the government and the Higher Education Funding Council for England have fully appreciated the problems. The coordinators operate in the schools, so talented further education sector students are not being picked up."
The scheme was run for the first time this year for 5,000 students in 55 universities, funded with up to Pounds 800 each. More than half of the 54 students who attended the Cambridge University summer school had at least one parent who had been to university.
Anne Newbold, who organised the Cambridge scheme, said it was nevertheless a success. "If you look for students who meet all the criteria ... then you are not going to find thousands of students," she said.
She admitted that schools were putting forward their best candidates regardless of background, but said they were schools with no tradition of sending pupils to Oxbridge. "If the school starts sending students to Cambridge, then... other students believe it is achievable."
Cambridge's head of admissions, Sue Stobbs, said: "I think that this shows up the serious problems in schools with encouraging able students from non-academic backgrounds to do well."
Oxford University did not monitor the background of the 120 students who attended its summer school under the initiative. Head of admissions Jane Minto said: "They were certainly students who had not previously thought about coming to a university like ours."
Alice Frost, the project consultant who has been helping to run the scheme for Hefce, said it was too early to judge the success of the summer schools.
The DFEE said that whatever the backgrounds of the students, the schools had raised their aspirations. "If they pass that message on to their peers then the numbers and backgrounds of the students who are influenced will be far greater than just those who attended the summer schools."