Private-school heads have moderated their claims that top universities are discriminating against their pupils in favour of lower-quality students from poorer backgrounds.
A new survey of university admissions by the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference and the Girls' Schools Association published this week concedes there is now "less evidence" of the complaint that arose from the results of its first and less comprehensive survey last year.
Instead, the heads warn that private-school pupils are themselves causing major admissions "congestion" and forcing universities to turn away high-achieving candidates because their choice of university is too narrow and based on "peer group reputation and transient popularity".
In the week before the government's task force on university admissions publishes its first report, the independent school heads' report makes the following conclusions and proposals:
*The A-level exam is "insufficiently discriminating" between candidates and is "no longer fit for purpose"
*A-level grading should be "totally recalibrated" into a numerical six-figure scale to "recognise the able and very able"
*A new A* grade at A level should be considered to recognise the top 10 per cent of students every year
*Universities should resume interviewing candidates.
In 2002, the HMC and GSA claimed that the universities of Bristol and Edinburgh and the London School of Economics, among others, were discriminating against students from independent schools in favour of state-school pupils with poorer results.
The allegations were firmly rejected by the universities, which said their courses were so popular they were forced to turn down students with exceptionally high A-level scores from both state and independent schools.
The heads said there was "less evidence" of the practice after this year's survey, which looked at 13 subject areas in 30 universities from the Russell and 1994 groups instead of last year's seven subjects at 18 institutions. The new survey included responses from 280 schools compared with 186 last year.
Instead, the HMC and GSA said they would urge pupils "not to follow the herd" and to take more care in choosing a university after discovering that "highly rated courses at some top universities appear to be less popular than they deserve".
One of the most popular subjects for private-school candidates is history.
Oxford and York universities had the highest average A-level offers, at AAB; York rejected 26.7 per cent of private-school applicants compared with 68.6 per cent rejected by Oxford. Bristol had the highest rejection rate for private-school applicants, with 80.1 per cent.
There were similarly wide variations in another favourite subject, English.
Bristol and Nottingham had rejection rates of 78.5 per cent and 76.1 per cent respectively, substantially higher than other universities considered to offer excellent tuition; Leeds had a rejection rate of per cent and Liverpool's was 5.6 per cent.
"The attraction of some universities for sixthformers may be exacerbating the problem (of high rejection rates), with highly rated departments at other universities receiving fewer applications than they should," the report says.
"Student choice needs to be more careful, focusing on more than peer-group reputation and transient popularity. Not only will careful research optimise the chance of an offer, but it will also ensure that a few apparent key players do not remain so congested with applicants that interviewing becomes impossible."
The report says that A levels are no longer fit for the purpose of distinguishing between the best candidates. "In the most popular subjects at the most demanding universities the average offer can be in the AAB-AAA region," it says. "Even then, some of the associated rejection rates can also be high. It is increasingly clearI that the examination is insufficiently discriminatory."
The HMC said that in some subjects a quarter to a third of students had attained A grades.
The report proposes a new A* grade, as is the case for GCSEs, to recognise the top 10 per cent of pupils each year. It goes further, arguing for a numerical grading system from 1 to 6. This would avoid the difficulty of an A to F scale as a "broadening of the bands 3-6 inclusive would allow grades 1 and 2 to distinguish able students effectively".
On the subject of interviews, the report says: "A well-conducted interview, which develops its own dynamic after the rehearsed opening moves, just as in a game of chess, opens up the candidate to scrutiny."