The new exam, proposed in the 1996 Dearing Report on 16 to 19 qualifications, would be an extension paper based on the A-level syllabus. It would require no extra tuition, according to officials at the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, who are developing it with the exam boards. If their recommendations are approved by ministers, the exam will be launched in September 2000.
The new qualification might mean a starred A grade at S-level would give 12 points on the university entry tariff, where an A grade A-level now wins 10 points.
Top universities now expect students to achieve 28 points, equal to two As and a B. But a very high proportion now have three straight As (86 per cent of those admitted to Cambridge last year).
Distinguishing between the brightest applicants has been a problem for the elite universities since Oxbridge abolished its special entrance exams in the 1980s and the existing Special papers went into decline. Only 5,650 candidates took Special papers last year, down from 9,500 in 1994 and 17,400 in 1989. State schools have found it increasingly hard to offer the special tuition currently required for Special papers.
State schools are also being encouraged to put their brightest pupils in for some GCSEs a year early so they can start on their A level courses at 15 - as many in independent schools already do.
This would stretch the most able pupils and make it easier for them to follow a broader programme of study in the sixth form, Nick Tate, chief executive of the QCA, told a conference in Oxford at the weekend.
When nearly 15 per cent of awards at GCSE were at grades A and A*, it was "not unreasonable to ask whether all of these pupils are being stretched all of the time while studying for their GCSEs," he said. This did not necessarily mean GCSE was wrong for them and it certainly did not follow that GCSEs were easier than the old O- levels, he added.
Mr Tate was addressing a conference organised by the European Council for High Ability and National Association for Able Children in Education at St Catherine's College.
He suggested that provision for the most able should focus on the top 5 per cent of children - roughly 400,000 pupils in English schools. He said the Government's new advisory group on gifted children would be considering ways of spreading good practice.