Content note: discussion of suicide/self harm

Prior attainment is a major factor in both educational and career progression. However, for young people from lower socio-economic backgrounds in particular, strong initial academic potential far from guarantees future success. These young people often still go on to fall behind their better-off peers during their time in education.

Indeed, recent research by the Sutton Trust found that by the time they take GCSEs, disadvantaged high attainers (those eligible for free school meals in secondary school and in the top third for attainment at the end of primary school), are achieving grades that are on average more than three quarters of a grade lower per subject than other high attainers.

Our new report looks to tell the stories behind those statistics. Using 34 in-depth interviews with young people from the COSMO Study, who have just completed their A Levels and other qualifications, researchers from Kantar Public have examined in greater detail the lives of those with high potential, helping us to better understand the ways in which their experiences, including any issues and barriers, differ by socioeconomic background.

Differences by socio-economic background

Quality of and access to education

Throughout the interviews, differences in the quality of and access to education were clear dividing lines in experiences between young people from different socio-economic backgrounds, with quality defined by them as staff turnover, lack of teachers and generally poor quality of teaching (both in-person, and online during the pandemic).

“At my college there’s quite a lot of people who went to private school. And just compared to them I feel like they were more prepared, they had a lot more resources I think.”
Disadvantaged participant currently studying for A-levels

Differences in experiences during the pandemic were also brought out by participants, particularly between private and state schools.

“[L]iterally, within a couple of days, they set up [Microsoft] Teams. And we had lots of videos on how to use Teams sent out, and then we’d have six meetings a day, like one in each lesson with the teacher teaching us. So, [they] literally didn’t even drop a beat.”
More advantaged participant currently studying for A-levels at a private school

“For the first three months of lockdown, we didn’t have a single online lesson. So it was just teachers would send out emails or activities or whatever, which would have like an entire PowerPoint of stuff to read through, which realistically, if you could learn an entire GCSE by reading, what’s the point of employing a teacher?”
More advantaged participant currently studying for A-levels at state school

Differences in the role and engagement level of parents

The young people interviewed discussed a wide range of different levels of parental engagement, from those that were disengaged, to those who reacted when their child reached out for support, to motivating parents, through to those who were actively pressurising.

Notably, parents with no involvement at all were only mentioned by the disadvantaged participants. In contrast, parents of more advantaged high attainers – with the exception of the privately educated – occupied the middle ground in terms of their involvement.

“I don’t think she [mum] knows much about the education system [in this country], so I made literally all of my choices myself and I’m quite ambitious. (…) Like no-one’s going to give me any handouts in life, I need to work as hard as I can to do the best for myself in the future.”
Disadvantaged participant currently studying for A-levels

“[Talking about influences on future plans] Especially with my parents, because neither of them went to uni, both of them were just sort of like ‘okay’, they don’t really understand how it works.”
Disadvantaged participant currently studying for A-levels

“[My parents’ role was] probably quite influential because I needed a bit of a kick up the backside to be honest. (…) It was positive pressure I’d say.”
More advantaged participant currently studying for A-levels at a private school


Responses on young people’s motivation, and the perceived importance of hard work, also differed across socio-economic background.

Disadvantaged high attainers seemed to be more motivated by the idea of making their parents proud, supporting them financially or caring for them in the future. In particular, a sense of responsibility towards their parents was a source of motivation for some, that was not found to be present in the decision-making of more advantaged high attainers.

“I just don’t want [to] live like this forever you know. I want to, I don’t know how to put it in words, I just don’t ever want to have to worry about money ever.”
Disadvantaged participant currently studying for A-levels

And while being intrinsically motivated was the main source of motivation across socio-economic groups, the disadvantaged young people interviewed reported more consistently high levels of motivation throughout the entirety of their secondary education. In contrast, more advantaged high attainers tended to describe fluctuating motivation levels, often influenced by teachers or other factors beyond their education.

“The thing that has motivated me all along, it’s the grades, the grades that I will need to get into a university, or at university, to get into a good career that I will find enjoyable.”
Disadvantaged participant currently studying for A-levels

“I think I was most motivated in year seven but then I stopped. (…) Then I just sort of just did the bare minimum but then got, like, average grades and stuff. (..) It doesn’t really mean anything until GCSEs so then I just stopped trying.”
More advantaged participant currently studying for A-levels at state school

Common experiences and influences

While many reported experiences did differ between those interviewed from different socio-economic backgrounds, there were also several similarities in experiences.

The importance of relationships

Young high attainers shared similarities in the importance of relationships with parents, teachers and friends –

“I’m motivated to do well in school, and I feel like my friends around me help me feel motivated. Because we all do quite like similar subjects. So, when I see them doing something it makes me motivated to also do something.”
Disadvantaged participant currently studying for A-levels

“When you have a teacher you like, you’re more willing to work for them anyway because they’re going to put in the work for you so you’re putting in the work for them.”
More advantaged participant currently studying for A-levels at private school

Young people across different backgrounds also shared the importance of disruptive life events, such as COVID-19 pandemic, or experiences of bullying and its detrimental effect on motivation, mental health and wellbeing.

Wider inequalities

Inequalities related to mental health, sexuality, gender, or race could also interact – or act separately from socio-economic background.

“I think I just lacked motivation and probably needed a lot more mental health support than I got, and because I didn’t get that, I just kind of was like, why would I focus on school when I don’t want to be alive? That sounds really sad but if you ask me at a certain point in year 9, ‘Do you think you’re going to live past 16?’, I would have told you ‘no’ because the support just wasn’t there like at all. It’s still not.”
More advantaged participant currently studying for A-levels

“I’m a smart person, so I did well in school, but I also dealt with depression and that made putting the effort in a lot more difficult for me. So, I go to school and I do the bare minimum and that’s still being in top sets.”
Disadvantaged participant currently studying for BTEC

Personal interest

And across socio-economic backgrounds, young people were guided by their personal interests in their future plans.

“I think it was always my dream to do something science related and then didn’t know what science specifically and I did work experience and it was more based in chemistry and I thought I’d really enjoy that. (…) Well initially it [aspiration] was medicine and then I decided I didn’t want to do that whole process so then I did – it was always science but like a year ago I did my work experience in a lab and then I was like okay I want to work in a lab and do chemistry.”
Disadvantaged participant currently studying for A-levels

Overall, it was the combination of a young person’s socio-economic background, experience of other inequalities, relationships, personal characteristics and life events which shaped high attainers’ educational journey and future plans.

It is clear that to properly support those with high potential from disadvantaged backgrounds to maximise that potential, having a full and nuanced understanding of the combination of factors which are shaping their past, and their future opportunities is key.

The inclusion of the Sutton Trust Opportunity Cohort in the COSMO Study has been made possible by funding provided by leading algorithmic trading firm, XTX Markets. XTX Markets is a major donor in the UK and globally, with current priorities including maths and science education as well as support for disadvantaged students to progress to degrees, PhDs and highly-skilled careers.

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