Europe South Asia Asia Pacific Americas Middle East Africa BBC Homepage World Service Education

 You are in:  Talking Point
Front Page 
UK Politics 
Talking Point 
In Depth 

Commonwealth Games 2002

BBC Sport

BBC Weather

Tuesday, 16 April, 2002, 08:32 GMT 09:32 UK
Should A-Level requirements be lower for the working classes?
UK universities should consider lowering their A-level requirements for students from working-class backgrounds, according to a government minister.

Margaret Hodge, the Minister for Higher Education, said that the A-Levels were not always the best way to identify a student's potential.

She praised a scheme run by Bristol University, where the average A-level score for the school was taken into account before a place was awarded to an applicant.

If a state school pupil had significantly outperformed their predecessors, they were awarded places, even if their A-Level scores were not as high as those of other applicants.

The government wants more people from working-class backgrounds to go into higher education. They say it is not "social engineering" but a pressing need for an industrialized economy.

Should universities take a wider view when considering applications? Would that be "positive discrimination"? Are A-Level scores a good enough measure of ability and potential?

This Talking Point has now closed. Read a selection of your comments below.

You either have the intelligence and will or you don't, no matter where you come from.

Melanie Torrance, Scotland
I think this idea is disgustingly condescending. My parents are both working class and neither attended university, however I easily gained a place at university through hard work and with no extra privileges or treatment because of my background. I subsequently put a lot of work into gaining a first class honours degree, which was more than could be said of many of my fellow students with daddies who owned their own companies and bought their precious kids into university. You either have the intelligence and will or you don't, no matter where you come from.
Melanie Torrance, Scotland

I actually think this is a good idea. Comparing a university candidate's grades with those of their peers and predecessors from the same school is a way of 'normalising' teaching standards and social factors out of students' results. Someone with good, but not outstanding, 'A' Level results from a school that normally performs very badly is likely to be potentially as good a student as someone who has achieved outstanding results through a more rigorous (or perhaps spoon-fed?) education, as serves as a good indicator of their ability in that it distinguishes between intelligence and education.

I believe that these factors are already (rightly) taken into account during selection by some universities, but I would be wary of making it formal policy. We should be concentrating on improving the lower performing schools so that 'working class' students are not disadvantaged in this way in the first place.
Amy, UK

A number of studies confirm that in information technology and computer science, two factors are directly linked to high drop-out and failure rates - low A level scores, and the attitude that students are only taking these courses to earn lots of money in future. Dropping the entrance requirements for applicants is going to lead to more students not finishing their degree with a nothing but a sizeable debt to show for their time.

Students have to want to be on the course they are studying and they need to have the ability to do the work. Universities are tackling the problem of access despite the McCarthyite cries of 'elitism', but you have two choices, you either raise the skills of people entering degrees to cope with the work needed to acquire the further skills needed of a trusted professional, or you degrade what a university education means to meet lower standard of entrants - thus making the degree meaningless and devaluing the qualifications earned by kids such as myself who made it from the comprehensive school to a top-flight university on our own efforts.
mark, UK

Raise standards in deprived schools so that all students have an equal chance in life and can be judged solely by their merits

Stacey Turner, American in the UK
That anyone would give this ridiculous idea a moment's serious thought is proof positive that some sections of society are throwing their hands up in collective futility and admitting that the prospect of tackling today's education woes is simply too daunting. This half-baked workaround was tried in the United States decades ago. It has served its purpose and is now used to hold people of different ethnicities to different standards. The uneven, ham-handed implementation of affirmative action cost many capable people a university place.

I would think that if Britain seriously wanted to reform its education system, it would try to be LESS like the United States, which boasts the worst public education system in the industrialized world. Hand-outs and leg-ups haven't solved any problems there and they won't here either. The only fair solution is to raise standards in deprived schools so that all students have an equal chance in life and can be judged solely by their merits.
Stacey Turner, American in the UK

Academic standards are already painfully low when compared to even a decade ago - the GCSE is now a worthless qualification. People already turn up at university unable to cope with even basic maths requirements for their course - is the intention to lower academic currency even further? If the same thing was suggested in a sport for example it would be dismissed as the lunacy it is. Apart from the fact that being from a so-called "working class" background I find the minister's comments both patronising and offensive in the extreme.
Kevin, UK

What a stupid and patronising idea. The best graduate employers consider A level performance, university quality and degree classification, when processing applications, so the top tier of jobs would still exclude these so-called "working class" under achievers. This Government should stop coming up with hare-brained schemes which only serve to distract from the fact that standards in education are pitiable, and will only improve through massive reinvestment across the board. While teaching remains a low paying career for those who can't (or can't be bothered), standards will never improve.
Idris, UK

Manipulating entry requirements is a soft and extremely inefficient option in correcting the unequal allocation of opportunity within the UK. It is also cheap in most senses of that word. Any serious attempt to provide equality of opportunity must involve reducing the disparities of wealth and power in addition to levels of spending on education and cultural opportunity AND (shouting) not letting the articulate, able and powerful to opt out of a struggling to tawdry state educational system. Only then will there be a sufficiently powerful lobby with sufficient political and economic clout to ensure adequate education for all. If the sons of company directors had to go to school in a school like "our school in Breightmet" in the 50's then buttons would be pressed, levers would be pulled and they would build 'Palaces of Gold" as it said in the contemporary folk song.
Martin, UK

I am an Admissions Tutor for a university in the north of England. Being someone who is from a working-class background originally, who studied hard - went to university and obtained an undergraduate and then a masters degree I know how hard it can be when the financial and social support is lacking. However - reducing entry grades is not the solution. The Government is simply abdicating its responsibility for education if this was to occur. Yes, there are capable pupils in working-class areas. However, the current financial structure places them at a great disadvantage when considering higher education. OK, so their fees are waived? What's that in comparison to the student loans and other debts that they accrue, together with having to work in order to support their families. Without a grant-based system and no fees it will be impossible for the current Government to achieve the 50% experiencing higher education target. That's unless they use the triple counting system which falsifies all the statistics they currently broadcast.
David, UK

I am a student from a very average state school background. Some comments have talked about how tuition fees are the real block to working class kids but I fail to see how. The size of the loan and contribution towards tuition fees is means-tested giving a parental contribution if necessary, so if no extra is given on top of that we should all be in the same boat, rich or poor. The loan is then reasonable enough for most campus accommodation, it's when we are chucked into the city in the second year that local rent costs make it so difficult for some of us. I'm in Bath where my rent takes up 80% of my loan and there is no way without a job I could survive. I propose the Government looks more into expanding affordable university accommodation as this will be the greatest benefit to those surviving purely on what the system outlines.
Dave, England

The reason those from working class backgrounds don't go to university is not because they aren't capable, it is because they simply cannot afford it. If they are bright enough they will work out that they can spend those three years working, earning money, moving up the ladder and not getting into enormous debt. I wish I'd realised that before I went to university.
Andy, UK

I can't help but agree that the Government should improve State schools rather than ask universities to lower their standards. I think New Labour are passing the buck. There is no point letting students into a top university when they do not have sufficient learning to date - which is not necessarily the fault of the student. Such students will struggle and become demoralised as they will take some time to catch up. Why not go the whole hog and take socio-economic factors into account when awarding A-level grades? Or we could just have two sets of exams, one easier set for the public sector and one harder set for the private sector. Surely this would create the much-desired level playing field.
Jared, UK

The government should take responsibility for standards in schools

James, UK
As a student at Bristol University, not from a working class background, I worked hard for my A-level results to get on the course of my choice, yet I would not begrudge a student from a working class background being offered lower entry requirements provided they were able to achieve the standards the course demands of them. I do however think that rather than shifting responsibility to the universities, the government should take responsibility for standards in schools and they should also look very carefully at the financial problems for university students and how this would affect students from a working class background.
James, UK

I worked in a university for 5 years and saw the teaching staff become more and more demoralised over students who were being let onto courses who were simply not able to come up to the required standards. If you can't do the maths, no amount of government posturing is going to change that. It's not fair on either the staff OR the students.
Russ, UK

We tried something like this in America some decades ago. It went under several names such as affirmative action, social promotion or with no name at all. Black and Puerto Rican high school students, being considered opportunity deprived, were given diplomas even though they didn't earn them with the hope that they would learn what they needed later on in life. New York City once had a reputation of having the finest public school system in the country. After this social experiment, a New York City high school diploma wasn't worth the paper it was printed on. Job applicants had to be given qualification tests by prospective employers and entering college students needed remedial tutoring in basic subjects like mathematics and English. It destroyed our entire primary and secondary educational system.
Mark, USA

As a sixth former, I find it hard to believe that a Minister is trying to penalise my revision efforts, just because I go to a private school. I realise that I am lucky and that I have had many opportunities. But I equally find it incomprehensible that I am penalised because my parents have paid twice for my education: once privately, and once for a state place. Students must all be chosen on MERIT, whether they will survive, and whether they are committed, not though quite offensive 'positive discrimination'.

Surely it is not for universities to lower their standards, but for the government to raise the standards of the schools it controls

Marcus Walker, UK
Surely it is not for universities to lower their standards, but for the government to raise the standards of the schools it controls. The fact that state educated pupils do so much worse at A-levels than privately educated ones speaks volumes for the atrocious state of our state education system!
Marcus Walker, UK

I left school with no qualifications at all in 1980. I had a wish to do something when I saw the film '2001: A space odyssey' in 1980. 16 years later I had an engineering degree and graduated top of my class. My health gave out in 1998 but I am now doing a second degree part-time with the OU. I am from working class upbringing and I can say that you just need the ignition of interest to work for what you desire. Being patronising to potential students will not help them go to university, you need a will to study. Some of the most intelligent people I have met are working class with a will to make the best of it. It's undoubtedly harder to study now than with grants, with the need to work to pay off debts.
Leon, UK

Surely the way to increase university attendance amongst students from poorer backgrounds is to give the brightest a proper opportunity by restoring grants, not by opening the door to the less able. Also what about other groups who underachieve at school through no fault of their own, such as victims of bullying?
Steve, UK

Working class pupils do not fail to attend university because they are less able under examination conditions. They do not attend university because this Government introduced tuition fees which they cannot afford to pay! To suggest that working class students should be positively discriminated against academically is offensive in the extreme. These people don't want a patronising attempt to level the academic playing field, they want a positive effort made to level the economic one.
James Whistler, UK

You can keep talking about "potential" till you are blue in the face, but ultimately, people have got to prove that they have some

Liz, UK
Of course we want to get away from elitism and public school favouritism, but you can't create equality of opportunity just by moving the goal posts for disadvantaged groups. Rather than lowering the entrance requirements, we need to focus all our efforts and resources on improving the quality of secondary education available to working class kids, so that they can get the results that they need.

My own parents both came from working class families, but would probably now be regarded as middle class. Fortunately, they gave me a love of learning and the sense that education mattered, and although I went to an ordinary state school, I studied hard and went to Cambridge. As well as all the upper-class Hooray-Henry types in Cambridge, there were plenty of "normal" people there, including some who were the first in their families to go to university at all, let alone to Oxbridge. You can keep talking about "potential" till you are blue in the face, but ultimately, people have got to prove that they have some.
Liz, UK

Mrs Hodge is quite right to assert that A Levels might not be a reliable indicator of potential. I can understand (and empathise with) her motives in seeking to guarantee working class students greater opportunities, but am certain that any kind of "downgrading" will only further stigmatise kids from poorer backgrounds - it will hand plenty of ammunition to those who might choose to belittle the achievements of those from less well-off backgrounds who nevertheless "break through" the obstacles in the exam structure. The Government should actually be looking to maintain a fair system of examinations and ensure that there is "a level playing field" of opportunity for all within such a system.
Robert Crosby, Nottingham, UK

What a weird idea! If you were an employer and found that an employee had passed exams through positive discrimination, would you still want them? This could push people firmly back into a tiered class system. Perhaps issues of class should be addressed differently, like putting more money into education at all levels to GCSE/A level, and changing the way people think about learning.
Alex, UK

I work in an internationally renowned university in the North of England. I would make the observation that all universities should have basic entrance requirements for one main purpose, namely to ensure as far as possible that applicants will be capable of completing the course for which they apply. For better or for worse, 'A' levels are the best indicator of likely performance.

I think that the Minister is very seriously mistaken if she thinks that having softer entrance requirements for "working class" students will actually help. All it will do is to land the universities with large numbers of students who cannot hack it, and worse still who were identified as not being able to hack it when they applied. Furthermore, her proposal will create anxiety and misery for those who sign up for courses and then find that they are unable to cope. Or does the Minister propose to heap the blame for this on the universities when the inevitable happens?
Rodger Edwards, UK

Well, why should people from working class background get special treatment? I myself from working class background managed to get into a prestigious London uni for medicine. If you are committed enough and willing to put the work in, there's no reason why you should meet the requirements. This could pave the way for people who are not up to A-level standards going on to do very demanding courses and finding out they cannot handle it. Universities don't want to take in students who will just fail. It's a waste of taxpayers' money and time. I say more support should be given to those people in state schools who are underachieving. But as yet not a lot had been done under Labour? Teacher shortages? AS level pressuring students too much??
Stanley, UK

Despite her denials, Margaret Hodge's comments are indeed a blatant case of social engineering and are utterly shameful and irresponsible. Quite apart from insulting the academic abilities of those she perceives to be "working class", Hodge's odious proposal is also set to delineate social classes in academia and lower the entry standards of our universities' intake. The solution to the problem she is struggling to grapple with is to RAISE the standards of secondary education - NOT drag university entrance requirements down to match a lamentable status quo. The whole idea reeks of socialism at its very worst and is an abrogation of responsibility on the part of the minister concerned.
Chris B, England

The disastrous results of destroying the grammar schools demonstrates what happens when educational standards are levelled down - a loss of opportunity, rather than an increase. The way to better qualified students of all backgrounds is to raise and insist on the highest standards everywhere, not by lowering them! Early streaming and selection helps, rather than hinders this process.
Richard Marriott, England

See also:

12 Apr 02 | Education
Call to lower grades for university

E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more Talking Point stories