Britain's most selective universities have made no progress in the past 15 years in increasing the number of places given to students from disadvantaged backgrounds, a major study out today reveals.
But the real problem, according to the report from the Office for Fair Access (Offa), the Government's university admissions watchdog, is that many schools are entering pupils for exams in subjects that are unlikely to get them a place at a top institution.
The report tells of one school which had only one pupil taking a physics GCSE; special "twilight" arrangements had to be made to teach him outside the school timetable.
"Only one in 10 pupils in mainstream schools take at least one science A-level, compared with one in three pupils in independent and grammar schools," it adds.
Pupils at comprehensive schools are two-and-a-half times less likely to take a language at A-level than pupils at independent schools.
The report says the emphasis on exam league tables can lead to schools "putting the perceived needs of the institution as a whole before those of the individual pupils".
The report says that students from the most affluent 20 per cent of the country are now seven times more likely to obtain a place in the top third of selective universities – compared with six times in the mid-1990s.
"Participation at the top third of selective universities from the least advantaged 40 per cent of young people has remained almost flat since the mid-1990s," it says. If anything, it has slightly deteriorated.
The report makes the point that this slight decline has been halted since the introduction of top-up fees of £3,225 a year from 2006, which was accompanied by more generous support packages for the less well-off. Other contributory factors include the fact poor students are less likely to obtain top-grade exam passes and – even if they do – are less likely to apply to the most selective universities than their more affluent peers.
Sir Martin Harris, Offa's director, said: "I would simply observe that to deny opportunities to young people of talent simply because, for example, their family lacks any experience of higher education, or because their school cannot offer a full range of options at age 14 or lacks the wherewithal to advise them, seems extremely difficult to justify.
"We are, after all, talking about real individuals whose futures deserve serious consideration."
The report, commissioned by the last government to investigate efforts to increase participation by the country's most select universities, praises the overall effort by higher education institutions to recruit disadvantaged youngsters.
Throughout the UK, their numbers have swelled by 30 per cent since the mid-1990s. Research also shows efforts to encourage wider participation by elite universities have also persuaded disadvantaged youngsters to opt for them.
"It would therefore be fair to conclude that without these efforts we would have seen a decline in both the absolute and relative participation rates of such students in the most selective third of institutions."
The report urges ministers to review school league tables – and to include a measure which shows the destinations of their former pupils, so that it can be seen how many went on to top universities.
Speaking to The Independent, Sir Martin also encouraged universities to send staff into schools to advise pupils aged 13 on subject options.
"If you don't take certain GCSEs, it's much more difficult to do an A-level in the subject you need," he said.
It has been prepared as background evidence for the review of student finance being carried out by the former BP boss Lord Browne. Offa is due to give evidence to his inquiry at a public hearing on Friday.
Meanwhile, in its evidence to the Browne inquiry, Oxford University backed the call by the Russell Group – which represents 20 of the UK's leading research institutions – to lift the cap on top-up fees, allowing universities to charge students what they want.