Cambridge University has predicted that the new A* grade for A-levels will level the playing field for "bog standard" comprehensive pupils competing with independent schools for elite higher education places.
Geoff Parks, director of admissions at Cambridge, believes the A* and introduction of extra "stretch and challenge" to A-levels will help the natural ability of the best pupils from all backgrounds outweigh any benefits of private school teaching.
His forecast is in marked contrast to many warnings that the A* will strengthen fee-paying schools' hold on elite university places. But Dr Parks believes that after an initial short-term boost for independent schools - likely to be quicker to adapt to the new arrangements - the system will move the opposite way.
"It may be that the balance shifts slightly towards what Alastair Campbell described as the 'bog standard comprehensive' and away from the independent sector," he told The TES. "But once the (stretch and challenge) questions are better understood it will even up and the quality of the student will become more important."
Geoff Lucas, secretary of the Headmasters' Headmistresses' Conference - representing leading independent schools - said that in the long run the A* grade should not disadvantage state school pupils.
Research from the Independent Schools Council had suggested that more than 16 per cent of private school pupils' exams would be awarded the top mark, compared with just 5 per cent of papers taken by state school pupils.
Last week Sir Martin Harris, director of the Government's Office for Fair Access, said the A* did "increase the risk that the brightest disadvantaged young people may be squeezed out of the applicant pool for the most selective universities".
Of the 3,000 offers Cambridge made this year, 2,800 were its new standard A*AA requirement, 80 pupils were told they needed two A*s and three were told they needed three A*s. But Dr Parks said so far the new grade had made little difference to which pupils Cambridge made offers to. For that to happen, the university would have to up its standard requirement to two A*s.
But it first needed to ensure the grade was an accurate predictor of success at Cambridge.
Analysis, page 16
NEW GRADE MORE PRONE TO ERRORS, WARNS DON
A leading academic has called on exam bosses to admit the unreliability of the new A-level A* grade.
It is designed to give universities a more reliable guide to the performance of the brightest pupils.
But Professor Dylan Wiliam says the grade will be statistically more prone to errors than the A grades they previously used.
Fewer marks in exams will relate to an A* than they will to lower grades. So any marking anomalies will have a bigger effect, he said.
Professor Wiliam, deputy director of London University's Institute of Education, wants exams watchdog Ofqual to calculate exactly how error prone the new grade is and make the information public.
An Ofqual spokesperson said: "There are particular theoretical issues around grading at the extremes covering a small range of marks. Ofqual is working to increase understanding of issues around reliability."