As independent schools begin a boycott of Bristol University amid claims that middle class students are being discriminated against, Lindsay Jennings looks at the lastest class war.

WHEN Catherine Hudson missed out on the grades she needed to get to university it could have spelled the end of a promising career.

Catherine left Seaton Burn Community High School in North Tyneside armed only with an E grade in English literature A-level, having failed both her French and German exams. It could have put many students off further education let alone have hopes of attending a top university such as Newcastle.

But Catherine was determined. She went to study A-levels in English Language and psychology during an intensive year's course at Newcastle College and gained a C grade and E grade respectively. But it was under an initiative to encourage more students from less advantaged backgrounds to attend university that she finally opened the door to Newcastle and became the first person in her family to go to university.

Under the Partners scheme, run by Newcastle University, students who may not have high enough grades to be offered a place, attend an assessed summer school. If they get through the summer school - which is no easy thing, says Catherine - they can be offered places on the basis of slightly lower grades.

Every university has to meet Government targets to encourage people from working class backgrounds or "low participation areas" to attend university. But Newcastle's own research has shown that out of 120 students on the Partners programme, only five failed or had to re-sit their exams - an average of 4.2 per cent compared with an average of 8.5 per cent.

Catherine, 21, is now in the second year of an applied communications degree, having achieved a 2:1 grade average in her first year. She is hoping to get a job in the media when she graduates.

"Admissions should be based on more than just exams," she says. "At the end of the day, you're only assessed on what you perform like in that exam. I think it would be a better reflection of ability if you assessed more on coursework, for example."

How we assess prospective students has become the hot subject among the middle classes, after Bristol University was accused of spurning independent school children with top A-level grades in favour of those with lesser marks but with good "potential". The Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference (HMC) and the Girls Schools' Association (GSA), which represent independent schools, accused the university of "unfairly discriminating against applicants from good schools, whether independent or state". They are now no longer encouraging their sixth formers to apply to Bristol - effectively boycotting the university. The row erupted after Rudi Singh, a pupil at an independent school in Birmingham, was turned down by Bristol despite gaining 11 A* grades at GCSE and five As at A-level.

Since Labour came to power it has set a series of targets for universities to meet when considering new applications, and universities such as Newcastle all have their own widening participation schemes to encourage more working class pupils to attend.

But Bristol has allegedly taken this one step further by taking into account the average A-level score of the candidate's school along with other bits of information which might suggest the applicant is from a disadvantaged background. Although it has sparked an almighty row, the head of the university's funding body, Sir Howard Newby, has described their admissions policy as fair.

Education Secretary Charles Clarke waded into the debate yesterday by telling private schools their boycott was "misguided", warning that they were "shooting themselves in the foot".

David Dunn, headteacher at independent Yarm School, in Teesside, says he would never tell his students to boycott a university such as Bristol - but he would ensure they were as informed as possible before applying.

He says his teachers have never noticed any bias against their pupils, and believes if there is bias it works against the top public schools. "It's those names which are so famous that in the past they've been used to the fact that their name alone opens doors and they're suddenly finding that they have to compete. And I don't think there's anything wrong with that," he says.

But he admits he is worried about a future where applicants will have to declare their parental income, and whether or not they are the first in the family to attend university.

IN a few weeks time, the Education Secretary will publish plans for an access regulator, who will be charged with the task of ensuring teenagers win places on merit as well as ensuring that those from wealthy families are not discriminated against.

Although details have yet to be revealed, ministers are looking at the possibility of using personality tests, favoured by companies when recruiting, and psychological questionnaires which explore personality traits and the ability to learn. They are set against the "old fashioned" interviews, where students could be coached to answer questions.

The regulator will not have the power to fine universities but he or she will wield a mighty weapon by being able to stop them charging top-up fees if they don't attract enough working class candidates.

But by simply favouring applicants from families which have never sent anyone to university before, or from lower income families, it will be unfair to all the good schools, whether they are good comprehensives, independent schools or city academies, says Mr Dunn. "That is just social engineering, which I am totally opposed to," he says.

Exactly how universities assess students is a difficult one, but one thing is certain - more and more of today's students are achieving top grades at A-level.

Bristol University argues that it had to sift through around 39,000 applications for 3,000 places this year. From Ravi Singh's school, 31 of 45 pupils were accepted for Bristol.

'I think the university application should be based on the student and nothing to do with the parents," says Mr Dunn. "If children can marry at 16 and fight a war with Iraq, but be held back at 18 by what their mum and dad might earn then that's blatantly unfair. When you apply to university you shouldn't have to say what school you attended, you should get your place on merit.

"We have to measure achievement somehow. I'm not saying A-levels are brilliant but that the only fair system is to have everybody taking the same test."

Catherine knows that without Newcastle University's Partners scheme she would not have got onto a course she enjoys at a university she loves. She is also a positive example to other young students and visits sixth forms at disadvantaged schools in the North-East to encourage others to think about applying to university.

"The fact that I got in on a lower offer or through a special scheme makes no difference when you're here because you still have to put the work in to get your degree," she says. "It's not so much about where I've come from but about making the most of it."