A-level students are being expected to achieve A* grades to gain elite university places a year before the new top grade is even introduced, The TES has learnt.
Cambridge University and a host of other top universities revealed this week that they would defy Government advisers and make the A* grade a condition of entry as soon as it starts in 2010.
Others - including Oxford and the London School of Economics - said they wouldn't initially take the grade into account. But in an article in today's TES, Geoff Lucas, secretary of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference, representing 250 leading private schools, reveals that some Cambridge colleges are effectively demanding the grade for admission this year.
Three A grades is the official minimum entry requirement for Cambridge, but some independent school pupils were told last term that they would also need to score at least 90 per cent of the marks available in final A2 exams for at least one A-level subject. From 2010, that level of achievement will automatically be recognised with an A* grade.
A Cambridge University spokeswoman confirmed the practice. "That has been happening," she said. "Some colleges have been making use of the data (on marks) that has been made available."
This flies in the face of advice from the National Council for Educational Excellence, a committee of education and business leaders appointed by Gordon Brown that includes Alison Richard, Cambridge University's vice-chancellor. In October, the council said the A* grade should bed in for the "first few years" before being used in university applications.
Mr Lucas said: "Far from delaying and following the national council's advice, this is evidence that they (Cambridge admission tutors) are desperate for the A* and are running with it before it has even been introduced."
John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: "This suggests entry to Cambridge is not a level playing field."
The A* grade was introduced to help higher education institutions distinguish between the growing number of straight A students. But trials suggest that disproportionate numbers of A*s will go to private school pupils, making it tricky for universities already criticised for doing too little to admit proportionate numbers from state schools.
Adrian Smith, director general of science and research at the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, said last month that universities were lining up to say they would not touch the A* grade because they felt it favoured independent schools. So Cambridge's decision to make it mandatory from 2010 is a shock, particularly since last month it said it did not expect to ask for the A* very much "in the early years".
This week it emerged that Imperial College London and University College London will demand one A* on selected courses from 2010.
Geoff Lucas, page 39.