Elite universities accepting more private school pupils

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Leading independent schools are getting more pupils into country's elite universities, the so-called Russell Group. The percentage of successful applicants rose by three percentage points to 65.6 per cent this year, a survey shows.

The study, based on returns from 139 private schools and selective state grammar schools including Eton, Harrow and Roedean, suggests that a government drive to increase the number of school-leavers from deprived families at the elite universities is floundering.

Over the past five years, the percentage of private school students passing A-levels at grade A has gone up by 6.5 percentage points, to 47.8 per cent. At state grammar schools, the proportion rose by 5.7 per cent to 37 per cent. At comprehensives, however, the increase was only 2.9 per cent, to 19.4 per cent. At secondary modern schools it went up by just 0.1 per cent, to 10.1 per cent.

Public school headteachers attribute their increasing success with Russell Group applications to the fact their pupils generally take three academic A-levels such as science, maths and a technological subject.

State school pupils, they say, are more likely to take "softer subjects" such as media studies, or sit more than three A-levels in the hope of improving their score in the tariff system used by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service.

Jonathan Shephard, the general secretary of the Independent Schools Council, which conducted the admissions survey, said: "Our research shows that A-level point scores can be misleading as a measure of achievement. It is quality, not quantity, that counts."

League tables show most universities in the Russell Group, representing the top 20 research universities in Britain, have missed government targets to raise the number of state pupils they admit. The proportion fell in 2005, from 87.2 per cent to 86.8 per cent. At Oxford, the figure was even lower, 53.7 per cent.

Wendy Pyatt, of the Russell Group, said: "We are attempting to tackle under-representation of students from poorer backgrounds at [our] institutions – the fact they do not apply because of low aspirations or underachievement."