New report finds social background has a negative impact on educational choices made by children at the age of 16

Bright children from poorer backgrounds are far less likely to go to university or study A-levels that could get them into top universities than their wealthier counterparts – even if they live in the same neighbourhood and achieve similar results at GCSE.

New research by the Social Mobility Commission has uncovered a progression gap between choices made by children on free school meals and their more affluent peers which cannot be explained by their results at school or where they live.

It found that just 24 per cent of children eligible for free school meals attend higher education compared to 42 per cent of children from more privileged backgrounds.

Poorer children are also twice as likely to drop out of education at 16 and are more than half as less likely to study A-levels that could get them into a top university.

The research, carried out for the Commission by Education Datalab, investigates the post 16 choices of children by social and geographical background, gender and ethnicity. The study explores all educational choices by all students who took GCSEs in the summer of 2010 by linking three national databases for the first time.

By taking into account factors such as where a child lives and their attainment at school, the research provides a unique analysis of how educational choices made at the age of 16 can have a deep impact on a child’s future career and earnings.

The report finds that GCSE attainment and geographical access to post 16 courses explains some of the gap in choices made by children from different backgrounds. But it also uncovers significant differences between poorer children and wealthier children living in the same neighbourhood with the same GCSEs results.

Overall, the research finds that around a quarter of the progression gap – the different choices made by children after leaving school – is purely down to social background.

Previous research has suggested that children from poorer backgrounds are less likely to have access to the knowledge and networks to help them make optimal education and career choices after leaving school.

In its recent State of the Nation report, the Social Mobility Commission called for more careers advice in schools, and better destinations data to hold schools to account for the guidance they give young people.

The report concluded that Britain has a deep social mobility problem which is getting worse for an entire generation of young people. It found that for every young person who gets into university from a treadmill or just managing family background, seven do not.

This new research also reveals stark geographical inequalities in the choices of institutions available to young people. It finds that there are 20 areas of the country with little, or no, school sixth form provision within a commutable distance. In these areas, there are significantly lower percentages of pupils studying academic qualifications at 16, attending a top university or studying for a science or maths degree compared to similar areas.

It also identifies the North East and the South West as having the fewest institutions for young people to choose from, which may be a significant factor in why post-16 and destinations outcomes are so poor in these regions. Whilst young people growing up on London have, on average, 12 post-16 institutions to choose from, those in the North East and the South West only have an average of seven colleges or sixth forms they could commute to.

Other key findings are:

  • White British students are far less likely to go to university than ethnic minority students: Indian (72 per cent), Pakistani/Bangladeshi (57 per cent), Black (72 per cent) and White British (36 per cent). Participation differences between White British and other ethnic groups who live in the same neighbourhood and with the same GCSE attainment are even more pronounced.
  • White British students are more likely to drop out of post 16 education than ethnic minority students: Indian (3 per cent), Pakistani/Bangladeshi (8 per cent), Black (7 per cent) and White British (10 per cent)
  • Female pupils are 8 per cent more likely to attend university than males (44 per cent versus 36 per cent). However, although female participation rates at top selective universities are slightly higher (10 per cent versus 9 per cent for boys), they are less likely to attend these universities than a boy from the same neighbourhood with the same GCSEs.

Alan Milburn, Chair of the Social Mobility Commission, said: “When low income youngsters from the same area with the same school results are progressing less than their better-off classmates, that is not about lack of ability. It is about lack of opportunity. The progression gap has many causes but it suggests something is going badly wrong in our education system.

“The lack of proper careers advice in schools and the sheer complexity of the post-16 education and training system make it particularly difficult for lower income youngsters to translate their attainment at school into qualifications that are well rewarded in the labour market.

“That has significant consequences for social mobility and leads to many young people becoming trapped in low skilled, low paid jobs. Government and schools should be working to create more of a level playing field of opportunity for youngsters to progress.”

Dr Rebecca Allen, Director of Education Datalab, said: “The age of 16 marks the first point in most individual’s educational lives where opportunities and choice can become markedly diverse.

“Our research reminds policy makers that they should pay attention both to geographical disparities in access to high quality post-16 provision and to understanding the reasons why students with identical opportunities make very different choices.”

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