Independent pupils urged to pick less popular universities

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The Independent Online

Britain's leading independent schools urged their pupils to choose less popular universities yesterday to avoid widespread rejection.

Leaders of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference (HMC) and the Girls' Schools Association (GSA) called for a "change in culture'' from the view that universities such as Oxford, Cambridge and Bristol were always the best. They published a survey of university admissions this autumn, which showed up to 80 per cent of candidates from private schools were rejected by some universities.

Graham Able, chairman of the HMC and headmaster of Dulwich College, south London, said: "We really want to break the mould a bit and encourage students to be a bit more individualist in their choice of universities.''

The survey of 280 leading independent schools acknowledged that there was "less evidence" of discrimination against private school pupils this year. Last year the two organisations called for a boycott of Bristol University because it was allegedly favouring state school candidates.

The organisations said the high rejection rate for some courses this year was because of the massive rise in A-grade passes - which has meant between 30 per cent and 40 per cent of candidates scoring top grades in some subjects.

Dr Philip Evans, headmaster of Bedford School and author of the survey, said: "This is a problem that's got worse each year. In some subjects, the proportion of candidates getting top grades is such that the exam is no longer fit for the purpose [of] identifying the higher-ability candidate is concerned."

The heads said they intended to lobby the Government to bring in a new "super grade" at A-level so that instead of receiving A to E passes, pupils would be graded on a six-point scale - with grade one being the top mark. Dr Evans said the heads wanted a points scale rather than letter grades to avoid the bottom grade being labelled F and being considered a failure.

"An ability to recognise the top, say, 10 per cent would be very helpful to restoring the notion of the examination as the 'standard','' the heads said.

They opposed the use of American-style aptitude tests - advocated by some in higher education - to determine which candidates should be admitted. Urging pupils and parents "not to follow the herd", they cited evidence from the report that showed the rejection rate pupils faced. In English, 78.5 per cent of all candidates for Bristol University were rejected and 76.1 per cent of those applying to Nottingham.

In history, the survey recommended considering York with a rejection rate of 26.7 per cent and a high rating by inspectors. Rejection rates for history at the most popular universities were 59.5 per cent at Cambridge, 52.3 per cent at Durham, 69 per cent at Edinburgh, 72 per cent at Nottingham, 68.6 per cent at Oxford and 59.9 per cent at Warwick.

The survey said that pupils should research their potential choices carefully, adding: "Highly rated courses at some universities appear to be less popular than they deserve. It is strongly arguable that student choice needs to be more careful, focusing on more than peer-group reputation and transient popularity."