CAMBRIDGE University is considering dropping its prestigious entrance exams in favour of the Government's new "world-class tests" as part of its drive to recruit more state-school pupils.
The tests were a surprise addition to the Government's March package of A-level reforms and were presented as extension papers for bright students which should be available in all major subjects from 2002.
Cambridge officials hope that the new tests will encourage students from a wider range of backgrounds and enable admissions tutors to distinguish between candidates with equally good A-level grades.
But they will only make the switch if they can be satisfied that the tests will combine the rigour of the entrance exams - Sixth Term Examination Papers (STEP) - with the availability of the A-level. As yet, no details have been announced.
Cambridge has been disappointed that some schools have been reluctant to offer its entrance exam papers and hope more pupils will have access to the world-class tests.
It has already discussed scrapping the exam papers with the Cambridge-based board which produces them on behalf of the university. Both Oxford and Cambridge are concerned about their "elitist" image and launched a joint campaign earlier this year to try to encourage more high achieving state-school pupils to apply.
Step papers were introduced in 1987 after the university abandoned its special entrance exam. The papers were developed specifically for Cambridge entrance but have since been adopted by Oxford and Warwick. Questions are based on A-level syllabuses but feature longer and more open-ended questions with more emphasis on logical reasoning and original thought.
Sue Stobbs, director of admissions for Cambridge Colleges, welcomed the prospect of the tests and said: "It is becoming increasingly difficult for us to distinguish our candidates by their A-level results as all our applicants are predicted three grade As.
"STEP has been a very useful exam in assessing pupils' potential. We hope its strengths can be incorporated into the new tests. It has been widely used in maths and has been very successful in encouraging people from a wide range of backgrounds to apply.
"We would be loath to lose some of our maths papers because they work so well, but we would discontinue the other STEP subjects if we are satisfied with the new tests."
STEPwas most commonly used to select maths and science applicants, but was never widely adopted by arts faculties.
Last year 46 per cent of students admitted to Cambridge were from state schools, compared to 44 per cent at Oxford and 61 per cent across all universities. Research by the Sutton Trust, which funds pre-university summer schools, found that independent school applicants were up to 20 times more likely to win a place at Oxford or Cambridge than those from comprehensives.
Meanwhile new research due to be published at next month's British Educational Research Association conference suggests that social class is still the greatest barrier to a place at top-rated universities. Working-class sixth-formers told researchers they were reluctant to apply to prestigious universities in case they did not fit in.