Bright state school pupils are being denied a chance to apply to top universities because of "inverse snobbery" by teachers towards elite institutions such as Oxford and Cambridge, new research suggests.
Independent school pupils are very much more likely to apply for well-regarded courses than state school pupils with similar grades, the study by the Sutton trust educational charity shows.
The report's authors said poor careers advice in schools was more significant than university admissions procedures in sending disproportional numbers of private school pupils to leading universities.
The report comes after suggestions that Lord Mandelson, the secretary of state for Business, Innovation and Skills, is to encourage universities to admit pupils from poorly performing schools with results up to two grades lower in their A-levels than those from succesful schools, to boost the number of students from less privileged backgrounds.
Teachers in state schools sometimes believe that prestigious universities are "'not for the likes of us", Lee Elliot Major, head of research at the Sutton trust, said.
The government confirmed last night that it is planning to publish a major new strategy on careers advice and guidance in schools, in recognition that much of it is not up to scratch. Teachers will be told how to improve advice sessions and pupils given a new entitlement to better guidance on their futures.
Dr Elliot Major told the Guardian: "Independent school pupils are more likely to apply to the most prestigious universities and academically demanding degree courses than state school pupils with similar grades. Our concern is that, in many state schools, there is a confusion between what is excellence and what is elitism. Many teachers will not advise their brightest pupils to even consider the most prestigious universities, including Oxbridge. In some cases, teachers have an inverse snobbery."
He said: "If you are going to address issues of social mobility through education, the biggest thing is to look at schools. Focusing just on university admissions isn't going to solve the social mobility question. The biggest factor of all is attainment – how many state school pupils are getting the grades to get a chance to go to university. The second is the advice and aspirations they are given. The final factor is how universities judge the academic potential of those who apply."
Ministers in Mandelson's department are working on a new framework for higher education, to be published in the autumn, which will include plans to tackle elitism in universities.
A spokesperson for the Department for Children, Schools and Families confirmed that a new strategy on careers advice, also due in the autumn, will tackle the problem of poor quality services in schools and colleges.