Former Head of Education criticises ‘patronising’ University Admissions System

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By Martin Porritt on 19.5.2023

Former Head of Education criticises ‘patronising’ University Admissions System

The Government’s former head of Department for Education, Sir David Bell, has criticised university admission rules for accepting working-class students with lower A-level grades than middle-class students who achieve higher results. He described the policy as ‘patronising’ to the working-class and argued that it is wrong to ‘compromise on standards.’

These criticisms came in light of new research which shows that a third of universities in the UK use ‘contextual data’ and make ‘adjusted offers’ to applicants from poorer backgrounds. An overall 90 per cent of institutions have signed up to receive this data.

As permanent secretary at the education department for six years, Sir David instituted the academies under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, and under Michael Gove, the Conservative Education Secretary, launched free schools. Now vice chancellor for the University of Reading, he is the first university head to publicly criticise admission on the basis of social background, sparking debate about class-based affirmative action.

Sir David said, ‘I personally care very much about widening participation but I think it is about focusing efforts on students who might be close to entry requirements to help them achieve the right level and giving them support when they are here‘.

Meanwhile, Sir David plans to increase the A-level grades requirement for applicants to Reading University (currently ABB), which will also be charging £9,000 a year in fees. He has said that the rise in fees will lead to higher expectations among students: ‘For a university like this, and all research intensive universities, you are laying out your stall on the basis that this is an intellectually rigorous and challenging experience.’


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