The growing gender gap in university admissions is already apparent by the age of 13, when girls are more likely than boys to believe that going to university is important, according to a report published by the Sutton Trust today. Researchers from Oxford University found that by the age of 15 or 16 aspiring to go on to higher education makes a big difference to A-level choices, particularly for disadvantaged students.

Drawing on data from more than 3,000 young people who have been tracked through school since the age of three for the Effective Pre-School, Primary and Secondary Education (EPPSE) project, Believing in Better by Professor Pam Sammons, Dr Katalin Toth and Professor Kathy Sylva at the University of Oxford, explores how a young person’s aspirations and attitudes towards university affect their academic outcomes after GCSE.

15 and 16 year olds with similar GCSE results were twice as likely to go on to do three A-levels if they saw university as a likely goal for them. Disadvantaged students were less likely to think they will go on to university than their more advantaged peers, with only 27% having high aspirations compared with 39% of their better off peers.

The researchers found that even in Year 9 (age 13/14) girls had more positives attitudes towards university than boys. Almost 65% thought it very important to go to university, compared with 58% of boys. Over half of all the Year 9 pupils surveyed (61%) thought it was very important to get a degree compared with only 13% who said it was of little or very little importance. Around one in 10 girls felt it was not important to get a degree, but among boys the proportion declaring university of little importance was 15%.

As well as attaching importance to a university degree, the researchers also found that students who believed it was a likely goal for them were more likely to carry on with academic study after GCSE. Over 60% of students who believed it was very likely that they would go to university took three or more A-levels and three quarters of those who felt they were not at all likely to go to university did not continue onto an academic route.

Today’s research identifies a number of factors that are important in shaping pupils’ aspirations and their own belief in their abilities. These include attending a more academically effective primary school, a well-resourced secondary school and being encouraged to spend time on homework.

University entry data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency shows that only 19% of students from the poorest fifth of neighbourhoods enter higher education compared with 45% of those from the richest fifth of neighbourhoods. 46% of girls enter higher education compared with 36% of boys.

The Sutton Trust runs programmes to help raise the aspirations and attainment of children from disadvantaged backgrounds, including Sutton Scholars which supports bright pupils from the age of 11. To help level the academic playing field, the researchers and the Sutton Trust are calling for more support for students from poorer homes including:

  • Support to encourage reading for pleasure, educational trips and out-of-school studying opportunities that can promote attainment for disadvantaged students at all ages, and especially those who were found to be high attaining at age 11. Enrichment vouchers should be funded through the pupil premium for both primary and secondary pupils.
  • More opportunities for disadvantaged pupils to go to the best schools – those rated outstanding by Ofsted – with fairer admissions policies linked to free school transport.
  • Disadvantaged children should be given the opportunity to attend good pre-school settings with staff qualified to degree level.
  • Additional encouragement and support for disadvantaged pupils to enable them to engage in self-directed study, do sufficient homework and read more books, the activities that provide extra academic dividends and are linked to aspirations and self-belief. Schools should provide such opportunities where they are unlikely to be available at home.

Sir Peter Lampl, Chairman of the Sutton Trust and the Education Endowment Foundation, said today:

“Today’s report shows us how important it is to raise the aspirations and self-belief of pupils from poorer homes, particularly boys. We need to offer more support to disadvantaged young people throughout their education so that they are in a position to fulfil their potential after GCSE. Crucially it shows that both aspirations and attainment matter for pupils, so it is vital that schools support both particularly for their poorer pupils.”

Professor Pam Sammons, lead author of the report, said today:

“Our research shows that students’ belief in themselves and their aspirations are shaped by their background. However, positive beliefs and high aspirations play an additional and significant role in predicting better A-level outcomes. These findings points to the practical importance for schools and teachers of promoting both self-belief and attainment as mutually reinforcing outcomes.”

Professor Kathy Sylva, the report’s co-author, added: “The higher aspirations of girls in comparison to boys may be linked to their greater A-level success and gaining admission to university.”


  1. The Sutton Trustis a foundation set up in 1997, dedicated to improving social mobility through education. It has published over 170 research studies and funded and evaluated programmes that have helped hundreds of thousands of young people of all ages, from early years through to access to the professions. The Sutton Trust runs summer schools with St Andrews and Edinburgh universities with places for 250 students each year.
  1. Believing in Better by Professor Pam Sammons, Dr Katalin Toth and Professor Kathy Sylva, from the Department of Education at the University of Oxford, draws on data from a longitudinal study of more than 3,000 young people which started when they were aged three in 1998. This is the third in a series of reports for the Sutton Trust from the Effective Pre-School, Primary and Secondary Education project. This first, Subject to Background, was published in March 2015 and the second, Background to Success, was published last November. For more on EPPSE please go to
  1. The sample for this research is drawn from the Effective Pre-School, Primary and Secondary Education Project, a major large-scale, longitudinal study of the progress and development of children from pre-school through to post-compulsory education in England. It has investigated various aspects of pre-school, primary and secondary school provision that shape children’s attainment, progress and development over successive phases of education since the age of three. To identify students who form the more ‘disadvantaged’ group in the sample, we used multiple individual measures like free school meal (FSM) status, family socio-economic status (SES) based on parents’ occupations, parents’ salary, parents’ educational qualifications, parents’ employment status, and indicators of neighbourhood disadvantage based on home address post code that measure ‘place’ poverty, including the Income Deprivation Affecting Children Index (IDACI) and the Index of Multiple Deprivation – (IMD). IDACI represents the percentage of children in each Standard Output Area (SOA) that live in families that are income deprived.




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