Bright but disadvantaged students are considerably less likely to take the subjects most likely to get them into good universities than their more advantaged counterparts, according to new Sutton Trust research from Oxford University published today.

However, their chances of gaining good A-level results are significantly improved when they experience academic enrichment activities at home from the age of eleven –including going on trips to museums and galleries, and reading for pleasure. When they get into the habit of daily homework, students are nine times as likely to get 3 A-levels.

Subject to Background by Professor Pam Sammons, Dr Katalin Toth and Professor Kathy Sylva, from the Oxford University Department of Education, draws 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.

The research shows that only 33% of bright but disadvantaged students took one or more A-level exams in ‘facilitating subjects’ that universities prioritise such as Maths, English, the sciences, humanities or modern languages, compared with 58% of their more advantaged counterparts. At the same time, only 35% of the disadvantaged group – identified as able from their test scores at age 11 – went on to get 3 A-levels in any subjects compared with 60% of their bright advantaged peers.

But the researchers identified a number of factors that made it significantly more likely that the bright disadvantaged students would attain 3 A-levels including:

  • Having benefited from pre-school education, especially of higher quality
  • Having had enrichment and supportive home learning environments from a young age, including reading books and going on educational outings during the early years of secondary school
  • Having been to an outstanding secondary school (as rated by Ofsted) and one where there were good relationships of trust between teachers and students, with regular feedback
  • Having spent more time doing daily homework on a regular basis before and during their GCSEs

Sir Peter Lampl, chairman of the Sutton Trust and of the Education Endowment Foundation said today: “The fact that bright disadvantaged students fall so far behind when they reach their A-levels shows that government and schools urgently need to do more to support able students from less advantaged homes. We must ensure that access to the best schools and opportunities for academic enrichment outside school are available to all students. It is also vital that schools advise their students on the right subject choices at GCSE and A-level so as to maximise their potential.”

Professor Pam Sammons, co-author of the report, said: “There is no silver bullet that alone can make a difference but a combination of good schools and pre-schools, the right home learning environment and supportive teachers ready to monitor progress and provide good feedback can all ensure that bright but disadvantaged students get the chance of a good university education. There are important lessons here for teachers and policymakers seeking to reduce the equity gap in attainment.”

The report recommends that enrichment vouchers, perhaps funded through the pupil premium, should be made available to encourage reading for pleasure, educational trips and out-of-school study for high attainers.

Schools should also provide more opportunities for able students to undertake academic enrichment activities where these are not available at home, including through structured ‘gifted and talented’ programmes, and monitor their progress more effectively. They should also encourage them on the best subject choices, particularly for leading universities, with support from a strengthened careers service.

Bright but disadvantaged students should also have more opportunities to go to the best schools, and disadvantaged children should have access to good quality pre-school settings with qualified staff.


  1. The Sutton Trust is a foundation set up in 1997, dedicated to improving social mobility through education. It has published over 150 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. For more information visit
  2. Subject to Background by Professor Pam Sammons, Dr Katalin Toth and Professor Kathy Sylva, from Oxford University Department of Education, 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 first of a series of reports for the Sutton Trust from the Effective Pre-School, Primary and Secondary Education project. For more on EPPSE please go to
  3. ‘Bright’ pupils were those children who had obtained Level 5 – the standard expected for 14 year-olds – or more higher on any of the three ‘core’ subjects – English, maths or science, in national assessments at the end of primary school (Year 6). Pupils classed as ‘disadvantaged’ were those with Free School Meal (FSM) status, or based on their families’ social and economic status (based on the parents’ occupations and salary).

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