Private school students are 55 times more likely to win a place at Oxbridge and 22 times more likely to go to a top-ranked university than students at state schools who qualify for Free School Meals (FSM)[1].  New figures published today (Wednesday) show the enormity of the challenge facing the Coalition Government to improve social mobility through broadening access to top-ranked universities.

The Sutton Trust is proposing that the Government’s new £150m per year National Scholarship programme should be used to expand proven outreach work and pilot new approaches – rather than being solely directed to financial support for students.

 The latest research from the Sutton Trust calculates that less than one student in a hundred admitted to Oxbridge between 2005 and 2007 had been an FSM pupil. There were only 130 FSM pupils out of 16,110 students in total – whereas nearly half the intake came from independent schools.

These stark university participation gaps are driven by significant gaps in attainment at GCSE level and before: pupils at fee-paying schools were three-and-a-half times more likely to attain five GCSE with grades A*-C including English and maths than the pupils from the poorest homes.

The position is not much better for the 25 most academically selective universities in England according the figures which are based on official statistics covering just under 2 million students enrolled at university over three years.

Only 2% (approximately 1,300 pupils each year) of the intake to these universities was made up of Free School Meal pupils, compared with 72.2% from other state school pupils and just over a quarter (25.8%) from independent schools. That means that independent school pupils were six times as likely to attend a highly selective university as those in state schools (the majority) not entitled to Free School Meals.

The figures also show that the proportions of FSM students varied significantly between highly selective universities. For example, King’s College London has 5.5% of FSM pupils among its students compared to Bristol’s 0.9% (see table in the Appendix to the attached report).

The new analysis suggests that the admission of more FSM pupils, the key target group for current Government education policies to improve social mobility, is much worse at leading research universities. During the three year period, 5.5% of the intake at all English universities was made up of Free School Meals pupils — compared with 81.5% of other state school pupils, and 13% of independent school pupils.

Sir Peter Lampl, Chairman of the Sutton Trust, which he formed in 1997 to improve social mobility through education, said: “The prospects for less privileged students getting into top universities will get more difficult with the almost tripling of tuition fees, and the ending of the Aimhigher scheme. Together these reforms amount to a completely new and uncertain landscape for university access for less privileged students.”

He added: “The new National Scholarship Programme is an opportunity to redress the balance, but it must be used to fund outreach work as well as providing tuition fee relief.”

The Trust is calling for the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) to remain independent and include figures from outside the higher education sector.

25% or more of extra fee income to universities should be spent on proven outreach work such as summer schools and mentoring. Targets should be agreed with OFFA for a five year period covering a basket of new measures to improve access. If universities fail to introduce these measures, then a proportion of their fee income should be diverted to a central access fund to make sure they do.

[1] Entitlement to Free School Meals is used as the standard proxy measure for the most deprived pupils at school. Free School Meals pupils accounted for 12% of children aged 15/16 (including independent school children).

Media enquiries

If you're a journalist with a question about our work, get in touch with Hilary or Ruby. If it's out of office hours, you can call or text 07917 462 164.

E: [email protected] T: 020 7802 1660

Keep up to date with the latest news