Thousands of state school pupils are not applying to the most selective university degree courses despite having the A-levels to secure a place, new research shows.

The report reveals that pupils from top performing independent schools on average make twice as many applications to leading research universities than their peers from state comprehensive schools with similar average A- level results. Application rates from Further Education colleges, meanwhile, were less than half of those from other types of schools with similar average exam results.

The study also shows that if university participation patterns were the same for those in the state sector [1] in England as independent school pupils with similar ‘academic’ A level results, over 4,500 [2] extra state school students each year could enter the 500 university courses with the most demanding entry qualifications.

The research, undertaken jointly by the Sutton Trust and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, analyses information on hundreds of thousands of students using UCAS applications data and the National Pupil Database.

Chairman of the Sutton Trust, Sir Peter Lampl said: “This research shows that even with the right grades in the right A Level subjects, thousands of state schools each year do not apply to the most academically selective degree courses. Many highly able pupils from non-privileged backgrounds wrongly perceive the most prestigious universities as ‘not for the likes of us’, and often lack the support and guidance to overcome this misconception.

“As well as underlining the continued need for outreach activities like summer schools, with A Level results being published next week, this timely research provides yet another compelling reason to reform the university application system. Students should be able to apply to higher education on the basis of their actual results rather than predicted grades, which can be inaccurate. This simple step towards post qualification applications would give many non-privileged students the confidence to aim that little bit higher.”

Key findings of the research include:

Overall trends

  • The single most important factor determining the probability that students obtained a place on one of the most academically demanding degree courses is the student’s own A level (or equivalent) results.
  • Beyond this, the differences by type of school or college in participation rates on the most academically demanding courses can be largely explained by differences in the number and patterns of applications from different types of school or college.

Application rates

  • Pupils from independent schools in the top fifth of schools according to their overall A level attainment, on average made twice as many applications to ‘Sutton 13’ universities [3] than their peers from comprehensive schools with similar overall levels of attainment.
  • Application rates from FE colleges to ‘Sutton 13’ universities were less than half of those from other types of schools, even when differences in average overall levels of A level attainment are taken into account.

Participation rates

  • A student with the equivalent of ABB at A level (including at least one ‘core academic’ A level [4]) who attended an independent school has a 79% chance of entering one of the 500 most selective degree courses, compared with 70% for a similar student attending a state maintained school.
  • If pupils in the state sector in England had the same participation rates as pupils from independent schools with similar ‘academic’ A level results, over 4,500 extra students could enter the 500 courses with the highest average entry qualifications by age 19.
  • If FE sector students had the same participation rates as those in selective state schools with similar “academic” A level attainment, then over 1,000 extra students from the FE sector (including FE and sixth form colleges) could enter the 500 courses with the highest average entry qualifications by age 19.

Offer rates [5]

  • It appears that young people from schools and colleges with similar overall attainment levels and who applied to the most academically demanding universities, were about as likely to get an offer whatever the type of school or college they attended.
  • Saying this, about a third of applications to ‘Sutton 13’ universities from those in the lowest attaining comprehensive schools resulted in offers, but only a fifth of those from FE colleges with similar overall levels of attainment did so.

1. Including maintained schools , sixth form colleges and genera /tertiary FE colleges,
2. Made up of 2,333 students from comprehensive schools; 1,277 from FE colleges; 693 from Sixth Form colleges; and 315 from selective state schools
3. These are 13 highly selective universities which came top of an average ranking of the newspaper league tables in 2000: Birmingham, Bristol, Cambridge, Durham, Edinburgh, Imperial College, London School of Economics, Nottingham, Oxford, St Andrews, University College London, Warwick and York.
4. For this analysis, core academic subjects were defined as A levels in Maths, English, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, or, History.
5. These findings need to be treated with some caution as they may still reflect differences in individual students’ levels of achievement.

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