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60,000 high-achievers miss out on university places each year

1 June 2008

Sixty thousand state school pupils who have been among the top fifth of academic performers in their year do not go on to higher education, according to new research commissioned by the Sutton Trust published today.

The study by the Institute of Education and the Institute for Fiscal Studies is the first to use new government data to track the progress of one year group of 600,000 English pupils through their secondary school careers and on to university, quantifying the attrition rates of high performers during their teenage years.

The analysis was undertaken for the Sutton Trust’s report to the National Council for Educational Excellence on increasing participation in higher education for disadvantaged pupils.  It is part of a much wider project supported by the Economic and Social Research Council, which will be presented at a conference next Tuesday.

The Sutton Trust study found that there were a significant number of youngsters who at some point were in the top 20 percent of school achievers at key stage 2, 3 or GCSE, but who did not subsequently go on to enter university by age 19. If they had, young entrants to UK universities would have been boosted by 25 percent.

The research – which was based on pupils starting secondary school in 1997 - also found  that young people eligible for free school meals (FSM) were 19 percentage points less likely to attend university than those not on free school meals. When prior exam achievements were taken into account, however, there was virtually no gap between FSM and non-FSM children – in other words, poorer students who reach A-levels are as highly likely to go on to higher education as their better off peers. The problem is getting poorer students to A-levels in the first place.
Looking just at those young people who do go on to university, the study found that pupils on free school meals are slightly less likely to enter one of the Sutton Trust group of highly selective universities (see notes) than other young people, even when prior academic attainment at school is taken into account.

Dr Lee Elliot Major, the research director at the Sutton Trust, said:  "These findings show that there remains significant numbers of bright young people with academic potential who do not progress to university. If we are serious about broadening the social mix of the sector it is important not only that the brightest and best get in to our most highly-selective institutions, but that more young people from poorer backgrounds go on to higher education full stop. This means ensuring that those who show promise in their school careers maintain high standards; that they understand the full range of benefits to higher education study; and, particularly crucially, that they are offered practical support to realise their aspirations."

Dr Anna Vignoles, Director of the Centre for Economics of Education at the Institute of Education, who led the research, commented: “It has long been argued that there are financial and social barriers at the point of entry into higher education which prevent poorer students from going to university. This research shows clearly that the main reason why poorer students do not go to university to the same extent as their wealthier peers is that they have weaker academic achievement in school.”

Notes to editors

The research was produced by Haroon Chowdry, Claire Crawford, Lorraine Dearden, Alissa Goodman and Anna Vignoles at the Institute of Education and Institute of Fiscal Studies.

The Sutton 13 Universities are based on average newspaper league table rankings and comprise: Birmingham, Bristol, Cambridge, Durham, Edinburgh, Imperial, LSE, Nottingham, Oxford, St Andrews, UCL, Warwick and York.