A health minister demanded a progress report on ‘widening participation’, following a report by social mobility adviser Alan Milburn, the former Labour health secretary,

That study found that children from middle class families – let alone lower income groups – were ‘losing out’ in the race for professional jobs.
And it highlighted how the proportion of medical students from the lowest socio-economic groups had actually fallen – from 8% (in 2002-03) to 7% (in 2010-11).

Meanwhile, the proportion from private schools had ‘barely changed’, at 22% (in 2010-11), compared with 23% (in 2002-03).

However, the Dental Schools Council hit back, sending health minister Dan Poulter a dossier setting out efforts already being made to attract students from poorer backgrounds.

It makes clear that several schools are already using so-called ‘contextual data’ – awarding places to applicants with lower grades, if they are from disadvantaged homes.

They include:

• University of Birmingham – where an Access to Birmingham (A2B) programme gives offers at two grades below the standard at GCSE and one below at A-level

• University of Bristol – which awards places for those achieving ABB/AAB at A-level, where circumstances mask a candidate’s true ability.

• Cardiff University – which is developing a ‘contextual admissions’ policy, to identify poorer students with high potential, backed by £4.5m of bursaries.

• University of Dundee – which has already reduced entry requirements and introduced an ‘adversity questionnaire’ for candidates with difficult financial circumstances.

• University of Glasgow – where applicants on its REACH project are accepted for interview with a score at 10% lower than other applicants.

• King’s College London Dental Institute – where places can be awarded to students with B grades at A-level, depending on their circumstances and school.

• Newcastle University – where students from ‘low participation neighbourhoods’ and poor-performing schools can gain places with ABB grades at A-level.

Other dental schools – including Bart's and the London School of Dentistry – run projects in partner schools to encourage applications, ministers were told.

The Dental Schools Council told Mr Poulter that all its schools were committed to attracting applicants from all socio-economic backgrounds.

However, the use of contextual data – information on candidate’s school, ethnicity, postcode, family income and level of parental education – is controversial.

Some academics have criticised the practice for potentially denying places in the top professions to students with strong academic records.

Mr Poulter said he was keen to encourage applications to medical schools from ‘students from every background’.

And he argued: ‘In recent years, we have made significant progress towards a more meritocratically selected medical workforce, but there is still more to do.’

by parliamentary correspondent Rob Merrick