Prior attainment is a major factor in both educational and career progression, but even young people who do show strong initial academic potential from less advantaged backgrounds often fall behind their better-off peers during their time in education.

Indeed, the first piece in our Social Mobility: The Next Generation series found that by GCSE, 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 students with the same ability from better off backgrounds.

This report, the second in the series, looks to tell the stories behind those statistics. Using in-depth interviews with young people from the COSMO Study, it examines in greater detail the lives of young people with potential but from different socio-economic backgrounds, to better understand the ways in which their experiences differ, and where they have faced common challenges.

"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."

"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."

"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."

Key Findings

Key differences and similarities between high attainers from different socio-economic backgrounds: 


  • Overall, the major areas in which socio-economic background drove differences in young people’s experiences were the quality of and access to education. Quality was defined by staff turnover, lack of teachers and generally poor quality of (online) teaching, whereas access to education was limited or enabled on the basis of technological access.
  • Socio-economic background also informed differences in the role and level of engagement of parents.
  • Differences in socio-economic backgrounds were also associated
    with a varying consistency of motivation and the varying degree in the perceived importance of hard work.
  • Experiences of the COVID pandemic were mainly shaped by the quality
    of and access to education, as well as differences between state and private education.


  • Regardless of socio-economic background, young high attainers also shared similarities such as the importance of relationships with parents, teachers and friends as well as an intrinsic motivation to perform well at school.
  • They also shared the importance of disruptive life events such as COVID-19 or experiences of bullying and its detrimental effect on motivation, mental health & wellbeing.
  • Inequalities stemming from (mental) health, sexuality, gender or race could be intertwined or go across socio-economic backgrounds.
  • Across socio-economic backgrounds, high attainers were guided by their personal interests in their future plans.

This research reflects and builds upon a number of key findings identified through the Sutton Trust’s recent Social Mobility: The Next Generation – Lost Potential at age 16 report.

Recommendations from that project address topics of direct relevance to this
piece of research, including:

  1. The influence of the pandemic on educational experiences:

There should be a national strategy to close the attainment gaps that have opened since the pandemic. Addressing these gaps should be a national priority, with a long-term plan in place, based on evidence. This should include closing the gap at all levels of attainment, and not just the lowest attainers.

2. The challenges arising from disadvantaged high attainers being unlikely to attend high-performing schools:

School admissions should be reformed so there is a better socio-economic mix of pupils across schools, particularly in the most over-subscribed. Those who attend more socially mixed schools progress more at GCSE. Oversubscribed schools should consider a variety of ways of diversifying their intakes, including ballots, banding and priority for Pupil Premium applicants.

3. The level of educational disruption experienced by this generation due to the pandemic, and the likely impact of this on their higher education.

Universities should recognise the disruption faced by students joining them in the autumn by supporting their transition and success in higher education. When students arrive this autumn, universities should identify key gaps in learning at an early stage in the first term, and provide continuing support if necessary, as well as support for student mental health and wellbeing.