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Universities should follow US, says altruist

ELITE universities should recruit bright pupils from non-privileged backgrounds in the same way that Ivy League universities do in the United States, the educational philanthropist Peter Lampl has told independent school heads.

Mr Lampl has written to David Blunkett, the Education and Employment Secretary, urging the Government to pilot a new, American-style entry test for university that would measure ability rather than achievement and thus give pupils from poor backgrounds a better chance. He has offered to pay half the costs of a pilot for the test, which would run alongside A-levels.

The philanthropist told a conference at Brighton College he was "outraged" at the educational advantages money could buy in Britain, where the chance of getting to Oxbridge from an independent school was 30 times greater than from a comprehensive.

And he suggested that Britain's top universities should behave more like Harvard University, where 50 people in the admissions office recruited clever but under-achieving students on the basis of their scores in the nationwide Scholastic Aptitude Tests (SATs). At Oxford, only two people work in the admissions office.

He was addressing a conference on the future of independent education attended by 130 heads and senior teachers.

Mr Lampl also revealed that he had been talking to a number of day schools about his plan to fund "open access" schemes, under which help with fees could be given to any pupil who passed the entrance exam. The first schools to take part will be announced in the next two months.

The conference also heard of serious reservations about ministers planned reform of A-levels.

Chris Woodhead, the chief inspector, expressed concern that modular A-levels would "artificially fragment" some subjects and said the plan to mix and match academic and vocational exams could "destroy the intellectual integrity" of the A-level.

He conceded there was room in hte first year timetable to reach two extra subjects at AS level.

He described the concept of "key skills" (in information technology, communication and numeracy) as "a trifle elusive", suggesting that good teachers should cover them anyway, and queried if the plan for an "overarching certificate" was worth the effort going into it.

Marilyn Butler, rector of Exeter College, Oxford, described the Dearing Report on 16 to 19 exams and the proposals that had come from it as "profoundly philistine".

The changes would not be a true broadening - taking more subjects to a higher level, as in the German Abitur - but "a fudge."

She stressed that she was speaking in a personal capacity as the Oxford colleges have not yet formulated a response to the plans.

She was also worried that candidates doing more subjects and key skills in their first sixth-form year would get a higher score on their university application form than those who were making "brilliant" progress in just their A-level subjects.

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