An investigation by the Independent's Education section shows that the 16-plus exam, not A-level, increasingly holds the key to university entrance.
One independent school head this year received a letter from an Oxbridge don who said that it was beginning to look as though very few students would be accepted in future without a full set of A grades at GCSE, particularly if they came from independent schools.
Stephen Smith of Bedford Modern School for boys, who received the letter, said: "You want to make sure that if you're putting candidates in for Oxford and Cambridge they stand an equal chance." The message for the 600,000 16-year-olds at present in the final stages of their GCSE exams is clear: first-rate A-levels may no longer be enough to secure an offer from the top universities.
Students usually apply for university two terms before they take their A-levels so the only public examination results they have are GCSEs.
Boys' schools are particularly worried about the trend because boys do worse at GCSE than girls. Martin Stephen, head of Manchester Grammar School, said that some of the top universities were in danger of selecting "little goody two shoes without flair and creativity".
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