The introduction of the new A* grade at A-level this summer will boost the chances of private school students going to university, research published yesterday indicated.
The new grade will be awarded to students scoring more than 90 per cent in their exams. If the system had been in place for last year's exams, 36.5 per cent of all the A* grades awarded would have gone to privately educated pupils, who make up only seven per cent of A-level student numbers.
Rudolf Eliott Lockhart, head of research at the Independent Schools Council (ISC), who compiled the figures from exam board returns, said that the findings would pose a dilemma for university admissions officers.
Universities may face criticism if they fail to reach benchmarks set for increasing the number of state school pupils and, in particular, those from disadvantaged groups, he said.
"It is very likely that the introduction of the A* grade will therefore lead to a greater proportion of those awarded the top grade at A-level being educated at ISC schools," Mr Eliott Lockhart said.
"This trend is likely to be even more marked among pupils being awarded three or more A* grades."
In addition, universities could also face a dilemma as a result of the number of A* grades being awarded being higher than originally predicted.
It was initially thought that the new grade would highlight around 25 per cent of pupils with the highest marks, but last year's results indicate that, in fact, an average of 29.8 per cent of candidates across the country scored more than 90 per cent.
The increased numbers may make it harder than expected for universities to select the brightest candidates for the most popular courses.
Only a handful of universities have included A* grades as part of their admissions criteria this year, with many believing the system should be given time to bed down before recognising it. Cambridge University, for example, will recognise the new grade and has stipulated that all candidates should have at least one A* grade.
A closer scrutiny of the research indicates that those who have withheld recognition of the A* grade may be proved correct. The last three years' results show that the number of students who would have been awarded the new grade varies considerably, falling in 2007-08 compared with the previous year, but rising again last year.
"The introduction of the A* could be a mixed blessing," Mr Eliott Lockhart said. "On the one hand the A* will allow for greater differentiation between the top candidates. On the other, the apparent volatility of the A* grade could see many very good candidates falling foul of what might be inconsistencies in the awarding of the grade."
A subject-by-subject breakdown of last year's results reveals those studying Russian are most likely to achieve an A* grade – 51.6 per cent of candidates with A grade passes would have been awarded it. Least likely are those studying computing or information technology – where only 8.9 per cent would have obtained it.