Opening doors - Understanding and overcoming the barriers to university access

Opening doors - Understanding and overcoming the barriers to university access
Part one:
The root causes
of under-representation

Understanding and overcoming
the barriers to university access
Opening doors - Understanding and overcoming the barriers to university access
The Director General of the Russell Group, Dr Wendy Piatt, would like to thank
Thomas Murphy, Elizabeth Woodfield, Nick Ratcliffe, Dr Tim Bradshaw and
Fiona Macleod at the Russell Group for their work on this publication.

The Russell Group would also like to thank:
Dan Abramson                            Kathleen Hood
King’s College London                   University of Edinburgh
Mathematics School
                                        Richard Kemp
Dr Annalisa Alexander                   University of Leeds
Imperial College London
                                        Dr Samina Khan
Lucy Backhurst                          University of Oxford
Newcastle University
                                        Stephanie Lee
Professor Trevor Bailey                 University of Manchester
University of Exeter
                                        Tom Levinson
Louise Banahene                         University of Cambridge
University of Leeds
                                        Rachel Lister
Paul Blagburn                           University of Cambridge
University of Warwick
                                        Melissa Mead
Julie Bond                              University of Oxford
University of Liverpool
                                        Robyn Pearce-Jones
Anne-Marie Canning                      University of Oxford
King’s College London
                                        Zoe Pither
Laura Cattell                           University of Bristol
University of Liverpool
                                        Tara Prayag
Lucy Collins                            University of Oxford
University of Bristol
                                        Emma Reay
Dr Sally Curtis                         Newcastle University
University of Southampton
                                        Gail Rothnie
Dr Will Curtis                          University of Birmingham
University of Warwick
                                        Anne Setright
Professor Sir David Eastwood            Queen Mary University of London
University of Birmingham
                                        Jo Sharp
Professor Anthony Finkelstein           University of Liverpool
University College London
                                        James Slattery
Alison Gregory                          University of Oxford
University of Manchester
Dr Penelope Griffin
University of Nottingham

Opening doors - Understanding and overcoming the barriers to university access

                                                         Foreword                      4

                                                         Executive summary            6

                                                         1 Attainment gaps            12

                                                         2 Reasons behind             18
                                                           attainment gaps
                                                         3 Making informed choices    24

                                                         4 Problems of poor advice    32
                                                           and misconceptions
                                                         Concluding remarks           38

                                                         References                   40

                                                         Russell Group universities   42

Opening doors: understanding and overcoming the barriers to university access          3
Opening doors - Understanding and overcoming the barriers to university access
           Ensuring our doors are wide open to able
           students from all backgrounds really matters
           to us. That’s why Russell Group universities
           are investing a huge amount of time, effort
           and resources and developing pioneering
           schemes to help close the access gap. And
           real progress has been made over the last
           few years: for example, in 2013 students
           eligible for free school meals (FSM) were
           39% more likely to win places at leading
           universities than they were in 2011 . The                      1

           proportion of students from state schools
           and colleges increased from 68.3% to 75%
           between 1997 and 2013.
                  But precisely because broadening         Low attainment at school is the
                  access matters so much to Russell        key reason why too few students
                  Group universities, we are far from      from disadvantaged backgrounds
                  complacent or content with progress      apply to a leading university. The
                  to date. There is still much further     problem is stubbornly linked to social
                  to go in solving the problem of the      class and parental education. But
                  under-representation from poorer         while attainment is a big piece of
                  backgrounds in higher education.         the puzzle, choice of subject and
                                                           qualification are also important. It will
                  The root causes of the problem
                                                           take time, commitment and sustained
                  are many and complex. They are
                                                           action to raise pupils’ aspirations,
                  founded in a child’s earliest years
                                                           increase attainment and improve
                  and compounded at each stage of
                                                           the advice and guidance offered.
                  a young person’s life. Indeed, there
                                                           Progress is being made, as the box
                  is evidence to show educational
                                                           to the right shows, but this is an
                  disadvantage starts, not with the
                                                           entrenched problem for which
                  UCAS form, but in the cradle.
                                                           there is no quick fix.
                  The aim of this two-part report is to
                                                           While we can’t solve deep-rooted
                  explore the root causes of the under-
                                                           problems in society, universities
                  representation of students from
                                                           undoubtedly have an important
                  disadvantaged backgrounds at our
                                                           role to play. That’s why the second
                  universities, and to show what Russell
                                                           section of this report looks at some
                  Group universities are doing to help.
                                                           successful examples of how Russell
                  In this first section we set out         Group universities are working with
                  the barriers that are preventing         schools and colleges to help raise
                  these pupils from going to leading       attainment, aspirations, and improve
                  universities.                            information, advice and guidance.

Opening doors - Understanding and overcoming the barriers to university access
Huge investment and progress
                                                         has been made…

                                                              In 2015-16, the 20 Russell Group universities in
                                                              England alone will be investing £234 million in
                                                              scholarships, fee waivers, bursaries and outreach
                                                              activities aimed at the most disadvantaged –
                                                              with additional investments being made across
                                                              the Devolved Administrations.

  We want every student with
                                                              In 2012-13 three quarters of
                                                                                                Looking across all
  the qualifications, potential and                           young full time first-degree      universities, application rates
  determination to succeed at                                 entrants at Russell Group         from disadvantaged groups
  a Russell Group university to                               universities were from state      in England are at record
  have the opportunity to do so,                              schools and colleges. This        levels. In 2004, demand from
  whatever their background.                                  figure has increased from         18 year olds in advantaged
                                                              68.3% in 1997, when these         areas was 4.3 times greater
  Having access to leading                                    figures were first collected.2    than in disadvantaged areas.
  universities is important for                                                                 This had fallen to 2.7 times
  young people, because they                                                                    greater in 2013.3
  deserve every opportunity to
  succeed in life. It is important
  for our universities, because

                                                              1in5                              39%
  we want the best possible
  students. And it is important
  for our society, because we
  want to make the most of
  our young talent.
                                                              Around one in five first-         Students eligible for free
                                                              degree entrants at Russell        school meals (FSM) are more
                                                              Group universities in 2012-       likely than ever to attend
                                                              13 were from lower socio-         highly-selective institutions.
                                                              economic groups.                  In 2013 FSM-eligible pupils
Dr Wendy Piatt                                                                                  were 39% more likely to enter
Director General & Chief Executive,                                                             high tariff institutions than
Russell Group                                                                                   they were in 2011.
Professor Sir David Eastwood
Chair, Russell Group

Opening doors: understanding and overcoming the barriers to university access                                                     5
Opening doors - Understanding and overcoming the barriers to university access

Opening doors - Understanding and overcoming the barriers to university access
Summary of                                               This report explores the root causes
                                                         of the under-representation of
                                                                                                 of formal education already score
                                                                                                 substantially lower in development
Part one:                                                students from poorer backgrounds        tests than their peers.
                                                         at leading universities, and shows
The root causes                                          that these causes are varied,
                                                                                                 These gaps continue to widen, with
                                                                                                 children from homes of higher socio-
of under-                                                complex, and interlinked.
                                                                                                 economic status having double
representation                                           Low attainment at school is a           the vocabulary of their low-status
                                                         key reason why too few students         counterparts by the age of three.
                                                         from disadvantaged backgrounds
                                                                                                 Research suggests that infants
                                                         apply to leading universities. The
                                                                                                 from low socio-economic
                                                         attainment gap starts early and
                                                                                                 backgrounds who achieved
                                                         widens as the student progresses
                                                                                                 promising early test scores are
                                                         through their school years. It
                                                                                                 less likely to continue along this
                                                         continues to A-level, the point
                                                                                                 trajectory, on average being
                                                         at which a young person usually
                                                                                                 overtaken in cognitive performance
                                                         applies to university.
                                                                                                 by their better-off peers.
                                                         The attainment gap is affected by
                                                         numerous factors including parental
                                                         education, school type and ethnicity.   Involvement in pre-school is key:
                                                         There is still much more to be done     having attended any pre-school is
                                                         to address these deeper issues, and     a positive predictor of total GCSE
                                                         universities cannot hope to solve       scores at age 16, of more full
                                                         this alone.                             GCSE entries, of better grades in
                                                                                                 English and maths and of a higher
                                                         Subject and qualification choice is
                                                                                                 probability of achieving 5 A*-C
                                                         important too. Yet, even with good
                                                                                                 GCSEs including English and maths.
                                                         grades in the right subjects for the
                                                         degree course, disadvantaged            However, the most vulnerable
                                                         students are less likely to apply       families and those at the most risk
                                                         to top universities. Poor advice        of poverty are the least likely to take
                                                         and sometimes poor quality of           up their entitlement to free early
                                                         applications are adding to the          learning and childcare places.
                                                         problem.                                Primary school
                                                         On top of this, there has been much     The primary school attainment gap
                                                         misinformation about the effect of      is only now beginning to close.
                                                         graduate contributions in England       But there is still a significant gap
                                                         on access, which threatens to create    between the test results of 11-year-
                                                         barriers where none should exist.       olds eligible for Free School Meals
                                                         The attainment gap starts               (FSM) compared to all other pupils.
                                                         early and is stubbornly                 Test results for more than half a
                                                         linked to social class and              million 11-year-olds (Key Stage 2)
                                                         parental education                      show 74% of pupils receiving Free
                                                         Early years                             School Meals (FSM) achieved the
                                                                                                 expected level (level 4) or above
                                                         Inadequate stimulation or barriers
                                                                                                 in maths compared to 87% of all
                                                         to opportunities for productive
                                                                                                 other pupils.
                                                         learning can lead to sizeable and
                                                         persistent gaps in attainment. At       Secondary school
                                                         18 months, children of parents with     What is really disappointing is that
                                                         lower incomes and lower levels          inequalities continue to widen

Opening doors: understanding and overcoming the barriers to university access                                                           7
Opening doors - Understanding and overcoming the barriers to university access
Summary of   in secondary school, so that the
             two thirds of FSM pupils who beat
                                                      School type
                                                      Despite huge efforts across the
Part one:    the odds to be in the top fifth of
                                                      education sector, there is still an
             performers at age 11, are not among
continued…   the top fifth of performers by the
                                                      attainment gap between state and
                                                      independent schools.
             time they reach GCSE; then half of
             these do not go on to university.        In 2013/14, 28.4% of students in
                                                      independent schools achieved three
             High-achieving students from the
                                                      A*-A grades at A-level compared
             most deprived families perform
                                                      with 10% at state funded schools,
             worse than lower-achieving students
                                                      8.4% at sixth-form colleges, and
             from the least deprived families by
                                                      4.3% at other Further Education
             Key Stage 4. Conversely, lower-
                                                      (FE) sector colleges.
             achieving affluent children ‘catch
             up’ with higher-achieving deprived       With this gap in attainment by school
             children between Key Stage 2 and 4.      type as context, we are able to
             That some of our brightest students      understand the reasons behind the
             do not achieve their full potential at   over-representation of students from
             GCSE level has an impact on their        independent schools compared to
             subsequent achievement at A-level        those from state schools at selective
             and therefore entry to university.       universities.
             There is also strong evidence that       Within the diverse state sector there
             even among those with similar            is a marked and stubborn attainment
             attainment up to age 16, new             gap between selective and non-
             gaps can still emerge during the         selective schools. Selective state
             transition to advanced level. Young      school students are more than twice
             people from low-income groups            as likely to achieve grades AAB or
             who achieve five or more GCSEs at        better at A-level than comprehensive
             grades A*-C are less likely to get the   school pupils.
             equivalent of two or more A-levels       Ethnicity
             than their better-off counterparts
             with the same grades at GCSE.            Attainment continues to vary
                                                      widely by ethnicity. At A-level the
             There are many complex                   gap between those achieving the
             and interlinked reasons                  highest grades from different ethnic
             behind the persistent                    backgrounds is substantial.
             inequality in attainment
             between students                         The consequence is a much smaller
                                                      pool of highly-qualified students
             Teaching quality                         from certain ethnic backgrounds
             There is a strong relationship           from which selective universities
             between quality of teaching and          can recruit, and there is evidence
             the attainment levels achieved by        to suggest that minority ethnic
             students. Expectations also matter:      students apply in much greater
             in the best performing schools, there    proportions to certain courses –
             is a culture of teachers expecting the   which also tend to be the most
             best from every child, regardless of     over-subscribed.
             their background. But some teachers      Putting attainment into context
             and some schools fall short of
             adopting such a culture.                 Grades are an excellent and reliable
                                                      indicator of a student’s academic
                                                      ability and overwhelmingly, evidence

Opening doors - Understanding and overcoming the barriers to university access
suggests prior attainment is the best     guidance (IAG) throughout state
                                                         predictor of degree success.              schools, but there is widespread
                                                                                                   concern that poor advice may be
                                                         But grades are not the only
                                                                                                   contributing to the low progression
                                                         source of information used in the
                                                                                                   rates in many comprehensive schools
                                                         admissions process at Russell Group
                                                                                                   and further education colleges.
                                                         universities. Other factors are taken
                                                         into account in determining ability       Some teachers harbour
                                                         and potential, including personal         misconceptions about Russell
                                                         statements, teacher references and        Group universities, reporting
                                                         contextual information.                   that they would not encourage
                                                                                                   disadvantaged pupils to apply to
                                                         Making informed choices
                                                                                                   Russell Group institutions, and
                                                         Subject choice, especially at             some are uncomfortable talking
                                                         advanced level, can have a large          to students about the differences
                                                         impact on which degree courses will       between universities.
                                                         be open to students when it comes
                                                                                                   Graduate contributions to
                                                         to applying to a competitive course.
                                                                                                   higher education need to be
                                                         Some students are still not getting       explained better
                                                         the right advice and guidance on the
                                                                                                   Participation in higher education
                                                         subjects, or qualifications, to study –
                                                                                                   continues to rise among young
                                                         resulting in many good students not
                                                                                                   applicants, including those from
                                                         gaining the qualifications they need
                                                                                                   disadvantaged backgrounds.
                                                         for their choice of course.
                                                                                                   But it is also clear that there is still
                                                         Awareness of the importance of
                                                                                                   much misinformation about graduate
                                                         subject choice is higher than it was,
                                                                                                   contributions. It is essential that
                                                         but there is more to be done in
                                                                                                   potential students know that going
                                                         some schools.
                                                                                                   to a good university is a sound
                                                         Problems of poor advice                   investment, with no up-front fees,
                                                         and misconceptions                        repayments only when they are
                                                         Disadvantaged students are less           affordable and generous help with
                                                         likely to apply to leading universities   living costs. Money worries should
                                                                                                   not stop anyone from applying to a
                                                         State school students are much less       Russell Group university.
                                                         likely to apply to leading universities
                                                         than students at independent              Conclusion
                                                         schools with equally good grades.         It will take time, commitment and
                                                         Addressing this complex issue             sustained action to raise pupils’
                                                         requires input from many different        aspirations, increase attainment and
                                                         stakeholders, including schools,          improve the advice and guidance
                                                         parents and universities.                 offered. Progress is being made, but
                                                         There is also evidence to suggest         this is an entrenched problem for
                                                         that students from state schools          which there is no quick fix.
                                                         apply disproportionately to the most      While we can’t solve deep-rooted
                                                         competitive degree courses.               problems in society, universities
                                                         Better quality information, advice        can and do play an important role
                                                         and guidance is needed                    in helping to tackle the under-
                                                                                                   representation of students from
                                                         There are many good examples of           disadvantaged backgrounds.
                                                         effective information, advice and

Opening doors: understanding and overcoming the barriers to university access                                                             9
Opening doors - Understanding and overcoming the barriers to university access
Summary of          Russell Group universities have
                    been investing an increasing
                                                             thousands of young people and
                                                             teachers in the UK.
Part two:           amount of time, effort and resources
                                                             Information, advice
                    to help more students from
How Russell Group   under-represented groups apply
                                                             and guidance
universities are    successfully to our universities. We     The quality of information, advice
                    have developed a wide range of           and guidance given to students
working to help     programmes and initiatives to help       ahead of their application to
solve the problem   tackle some of the many underlying       university varies significantly
                    barriers to access.                      between schools and colleges.
of under-                                                    Russell Group universities know
                    In part two of this report we present
representation      some of the many successful
                                                             that lack of relevant information –
                                                             or worse, misinformation – can
                    examples of how Russell Group
                                                             cloud the picture and create
                    universities are working with
                                                             ‘false barriers’ to access.
                    schools and colleges to help raise
                    attainment, aspirations, improve         This is why the Russell Group and
                    information, advice and guidance         its member universities invest
                    and support students.                    significant time and resources in
                                                             developing and delivering high
                    Individual universities face different
                                                             quality information, advice and
                    challenges, and tailor their approach
                                                             guidance initiatives.
                    to admissions, access and widening
                    participation accordingly. So the        Raising aspirations
                    Russell Group solutions are              Raising aspirations and increasing
                    diverse – there is no ‘one size          awareness of higher education
                    fits all’ approach.                      from an early age is key to ensuring
                    Universities in the UK are sometimes     talented students know that a place
                    urged to emulate the access              at a Russell Group university is well
                    and admissions practices of elite        within their grasp.
                    institutions in the United States.       Choosing the right subjects
                    However, it is important to be
                    cautious when drawing comparisons        It is really important for all young
                    between the higher education             people – especially those whose
                    systems in the USA and the UK.           parents didn’t go to university – to
                    Importing US approaches would not        have clear information about how
                    be the best solution to the challenges   the subjects they choose to study
                    that UK universities face.               can affect their options at university
                                                             and their chances in life.
                    Raising attainment
                                                             Russell Group universities are
                    Russell Group universities work          working hard, individually and
                    extensively with schools and             together, to ensure that the link
                    colleges of all types, across the        between subject choice and future
                    UK, to support teachers to identify      opportunities is understood by
                    and support the students with the        students, teachers and parents alike,
                    potential to develop academically        but this is an on-going challenge.
                    – and to raise the attainment of
                    pupils, particularly those from          Advice on applications
                    disadvantaged backgrounds.               Russell Group universities are keen
                    Collectively, Russell Group              to ensure that no barriers to access,
                    universities’ students and staff have    either real or perceived, exist in their
                    an enormous reach, working with          admissions processes.

Admissions staff and tutors are           right qualifications from applying

                                                         skilled at using a wide range of          to a Russell Group university.
                                                         methods to seek out high quality
                                                                                                   Generous bursaries and
                                                         candidates and in particular to
                                                                                                   scholarships enable our leading
                                                         identify where, because of personal
                                                                                                   universities to attract talented
In 2015-16, the 20 Russell Group                         circumstances, an individual’s
                                                                                                   students, from a wide range of
universities in England alone                            grades might not fully reflect
will be investing £234 million                                                                     different backgrounds. Bursaries
                                                         their potential.
in scholarships, fee waivers,                                                                      help to overcome some barriers
bursaries and outreach activities                        The personal statement, teacher           caused by a lack of information
aimed at the most disadvantaged                          references and predicted grades           and preconceptions. They help
– with additional investments                            can provide valuable additional           encourage students to apply for a
being made across the Devolved                           insights. Some universities also use      course and institution best suited to
Administrations.                                         interviews and extra tests to ensure      their abilities and that will maximise
                                                         that pupils with real potential can       their life chances. They also play a
                                                         be identified from among a field of       role in helping students with limited
                                                         highly qualified candidates, who          funds to get the most out of the
                                                         may all look outstanding on paper.        university experience for example by
                                                                                                   enabling them to buy the right books
                                                         Alternative routes to
                                                                                                   and equipment, join in on social
                                                         Russell Group universities
                                                                                                   events and reduce the need to
                                                         Not all students enter Russell Group      find paid work.
                                                         universities through a ‘traditional’
                                                                                                   However, student support is not
                                                         route. Russell Group universities
                                                                                                   just financial. Peer support and
                                                         have developed a number of routes
                                                                                                   on-course mentoring provided at
                                                         for students who wish to apply to
                                                                                                   our institutions keep students from
                                                         a course, but who may not fulfil the
                                                                                                   under-represented groups on track
                                                         ‘typical’ A-level entry criteria due to
                                                                                                   during the first year of their course.
                                                         the challenging circumstance they
                                                         faced in their lives.                     Conclusion
                                                         One example is offering extended          The examples we highlight in
                                                         degree programmes taken over              part two of this report only scratch
                                                         a longer period than standard             the surface. There is a much
                                                         degrees, allowing students more           wider range of work going on at
                                                         time to develop knowledge and             Russell Group universities to raise
                                                         confidence. Foundation degrees            attainment, improve information,
                                                         allow students without traditional        advice and guidance, and support
                                                         qualifications to be taught in a          students than we could ever hope
                                                         further education college, before         to capture in a short publication.
                                                         making the transition to studying
                                                                                                   We are committed to opening doors
                                                         at undergraduate level.
                                                                                                   to students from disadvantaged
                                                         Student support                           backgrounds. We want every
                                                                                                   student with the qualifications,
                                                         There has been much
                                                                                                   potential and determination
                                                         misinformation about the effect
                                                                                                   to succeed at a Russell Group
                                                         of fees in England on access.
                                                                                                   university to have the opportunity to
                                                         With no up-front fees, repayments         do so, whatever their background.
                                                         only when they are affordable
                                                         and generous help with living
                                                         costs available, money worries
                                                         shouldn’t stop anyone with the

Opening doors: understanding and overcoming the barriers to university access                                                               11


The attainment gap starts early, and
is stubbornly linked to social class
and parental education
If we are to dismantle the barriers                      There is a body of compelling            likely on average to continue along
to university access, it is vital to                     evidence which demonstrates just         this trajectory, tending to fall back
understand and address the root                          how early the problem begins. In         relative to their better-off peers.
causes. Without a doubt, the key                         2009, the then Department for            While it may be difficult to assess the
reason why too few students from                         Children, Schools and Families           ability of infants in controlled tests
disadvantaged backgrounds apply                          described the relationship between       reliably8, the results of this research
to leading universities is their lower                   deprivation and educational              are still striking.
attainment at school. Attainment is                      attainment as: “substantial and
influenced by various factors over                       pervasive.”5 It is also by no means a         The graph below illustrates
a person’s lifetime, but especially                      problem which is isolated to the UK.6         the effect: on average, high-
in the early years.                                                                                    scoring poorer children will be
                                                         Even from a very early age, children
Educational disadvantage starts                          from disadvantaged backgrounds                ‘overtaken’ by lower scoring
long before school. It begins with                       have poorer cognitive skills than             better-off children before they
a mother’s health at pregnancy. At                       their more advantaged peers.                  enter secondary school.
this vital time, health inequalities                     Feinstein’s (2003) research7 suggests
such as smoking, poor diet and                           that while not all children from low
depression can have a significant                        socio-economic backgrounds will
and negative impact on a child’s                         have lower than average attainment,
early development4, affecting                            infants from these backgrounds with
educational progress later in life.                      promising early test scores are less

     Attainment gap between children with varying ability
     and socioeconomic status (SES)7




      Attainment percentile

                                                                                                               High ability, high SES
                                                                                                               High ability, low SES
                                                                                                               Low ability, high SES
                                                                                                               Low ability, low SES



                                     22   42             62                82      102           122

                                                          Age (months)

Opening doors: understanding and overcoming the barriers to university access                                                            13
The first few years of life lay down        The importance of pre-school to
strong or weak foundations for a            later educational attainment is             According to the Department
child’s subsequent development.             demonstrated by a 2014 study15 which        for Education, the test results
During their first year, infants’           showed that having attended any             for more than half a million
brains rapidly create pathways, or          pre-school16 was a positive predictor       11-year-olds (key stage 2) show
synapses. In a child’s second year          of GCSE scores at age 16; more full         74% of pupils receiving Free
of life these synapses begin to be          GCSE entries; better grades in English      School Meals (FSM) achieved
‘pruned’ – pathways that are used are       & maths and a higher probability of         the expected level (level 4) or
strengthened, and those that aren’t         achieving 5 A*-C GCSEs including            above in maths compared to
are discarded.9                             English & maths.                            87% of all other pupils.19

Inadequate stimulation or barriers
to opportunities for productive               The effect of attending any
learning can lead to sizeable and             pre-school compared to none
persistent gaps in attainment. At 18          is equivalent to achieving an
months old, children of parents with          additional seven grades at
lower incomes and lower levels of             GCSE. For example, this could
formal education are already scoring          mean the difference between
substantially lower in development            attaining seven GCSE grades at
tests than their peers. These gaps            B, compared to seven at grade C.
continue to widen, with children from
homes with higher socio-economic
                                            Students’ examination attainment
status having double the vocabulary
                                            is also strongly influenced by the
of their low-status counterparts by
                                            education level of their parents. When
the age of three.10
                                            taking account of other background
Early learning is key to a child’s          characteristics, students with highly
development. Children who                   qualified parents have a much higher
receive pre-school, or ‘early years’        attainment – equivalent to two
education, enter school at a                GCSE grades higher and four extra
cognitive advantage, and the longer         full GCSE exam entries.17 Indeed,
children have been in pre-school,           parents’ highest qualification level
the greater the advantage. Children         has been shown to be the strongest
who began pre-school education              net predictor of better attainment
aged two were ahead of children             in GCSE English and maths, and
who began at three, and maintained          of achieving the key benchmark
that gain at school entry.11                indicator of five A*-C grade GCSEs
                                            including English and maths.
However, evidence shows that the
most vulnerable families and those          It is clear that by the time a
at the most risk of poverty are the         disadvantaged child starts primary
least likely to take up their entitlement   school many factors will have
to free early learning and childcare        influenced their attainment. But while
places.12 Students from less well-off       the primary school gap in attainment
backgrounds are less ‘school-ready’,        is now beginning to close18, a
and continue to slip behind their           significant gap still persists between
peers throughout primary school.13          the test results of 11-year-olds eligible
                                            for Free School Meals (FSM) and
In Scotland, data from a longitudinal
                                            those of all other pupils.
study14 showed that children from
high-income households significantly
outperform those from low-income
households in vocabulary and
problem solving at both ages three
and five. By age five, the scores
corresponded to a 13-month gap in
vocabulary development.

The gap widens                                                   The attainment gap between FSM and
                                                                throughout                                                       non-FSM pupils achieving five or more
                                                                secondary school                                                 A*-C graded GCSEs (or equivalent)
                                                                                                                                 including English and maths has
                                                                Worryingly, these inequalities continue                          narrowed by just one percentage
                                                                to widen as pupils go through                                    point between 2008/09 and 2012/13
                                                                secondary school: the two thirds of                              (see graph below).22
                                                                pupils on Free School Meals who
                                                                beat the odds to reach the top fifth of                          The failure of our brightest students
                                                                performers at age 11 are not among                               to achieve their full potential
                                                                the top fifth of performers at GCSE,                             at GCSE level is likely to have
                                                                and half do not go on to university.                             an impact on their subsequent
                                                                                                                                 achievement at A-level and entry
                                                                Lower-achieving children from more                               to university as a student’s highest
                                                                advantaged backgrounds catch up                                  grades at GCSE are often a predictor
                                                                with higher-achieving less well-off                              of the highest grades at A-level.23
                                                                children between Key Stages 2 and
                                                                4, and by Key Stage 4 (students                                  In England, an attainment gap at
                                                                aged 14-16), previously high                                     GCSE, between students eligible for
                                                                achievers from poorer backgrounds                                Free School Meals and those who
                                                                have fallen behind. 20                                           are not, exists across all regions.
                                                                                                                                 On average the gap is around 30
                                                                                                                                 percentage points: so, for example
                                                                   In England in 2012, only 38% of
                                                                                                                                 35.5% of FSM students in north-
                                                                   disadvantaged pupils achieved
                                                                                                                                 west England achieve five plus A*-C
                                                                   five good GCSEs, including
                                                                                                                                 grades at GCSE (including English
                                                                   English and Maths, or equivalent
                                                                                                                                 and maths), compared to 65% of
                                                                   qualifications, compared to 65%
                                                                                                                                 students who are not eligible for
                                                                   of other pupils.21
                                                                                                                                 FSM. Compared to other regions,
                                                                                                                                 London appears to have been much
                                                                                                                                 more successful in closing this gap,
                                                                                                                                 with more than 51% of FSM pupils
                                                                                                                                 achieving the GCSE benchmark.24

      Percentage gaining 5 or more A*-C grades (including English and Maths) at GCSE


                                                                                                           attainment gap
      Percentage (%)




                       10                                                                                                                                     Non-FSM

                                2008/09         2009/10         2010/11         2011/12        2012/13

      Source: Department for Education statistics, GCSE and equivalent attainment by pupil characteristics in England 2012/13. Modelling: The Russell Group

Opening doors: understanding and overcoming the barriers to university access                                                                                           15
In Wales, 21% of young people              This shows that not only is the pool
receiving FSM in 2011 achieved the         of Free School Meal-eligible students
equivalent of five or more higher-         achieving the very best grades very
grade GCSEs, including English (or         small, but in 2010/11 non-FSM A-level
Welsh) and mathematics compared            students were more than twice as
with 55% not receiving FSM.25              likely as their FSM-eligible peers to
                                           get the very best grades.
There is also evidence that even
among those with similar attainment up     It is perhaps not surprising, looking
to age 16, new gaps can still emerge       at ‘snapshot’ destination data from
during the transition to advanced level.   the Department for Education28,
Young people from low-income groups        that we then see FSM students are
who achieve five or more GCSEs at          under-represented at Russell Group
grades A*-C are less likely to get the     universities:
equivalent of two or more A-levels than
their better-off counterparts with the       Of the 13,540 Free School Meal
same grades at GCSE.26                       pupils who went to a UK higher
                                             education institution, 1,240
                                             (9%) went to Russell Group
By the time students                         universities.
reach advanced-level,
the attainment gap is                        Of the 163,010 non-FSM pupils
substantial.                                 who went to a UK higher
                                             education institution, 33,970
At each stage of secondary
                                             (21%) went to Russell Group
education, the pool of highly
qualified disadvantaged students
from which highly selective
universities can recruit shrinks.
As shown by the graphic opposite,
for non-FSM eligible pupils, of those
162,609 pupils who took three or
more A-levels in 2010/11, 22,353
achieved three or more A*-A grades.

     Fewer than 8,500 students
     eligible for Free School Meals
     took three A-levels. Of these
     students, only 546 achieved
     three or more A* or A grades.27

Attainment gap at advanced level between
    non-Free School Meal (FSM) pupils and FSM pupils







        Number of students (thousands)

                                                         Number of non-FSM
                                                         pupils achieving 3 or more
                                                         A-levels at any grade:






                                                                                            Number of FSM pupils
                                                                                            achieving 3 or more
                                         20                                                 A-levels at any grade:
                                                         Number of non-FSM
                                                         pupils achieving 3 or
                                                         more A-levels at A*-A:
                                                         22,353                             Number of FSM pupils
                                                                                            achieving 3 or more
                                                                                            A-levels at A*-A:
                                               Non-FSM                                FSM   546
Opening doors: understanding and overcoming the barriers to university access                                        17

 Reasons behind
 attainment gaps

School and teacher quality remains
                                                         variable and this affects attainment too
                                                         The answer to why these inequalities        In its state of the nation report32
                                                         persist lies in many contributing           the Social Mobility and Child
                                                         factors. This section examines              Poverty Commission argued that
                                                         just some of the factors that are           disadvantaged students are not
                                                         particularly significant, but it is by no   getting their fair share of high quality
                                                         means comprehensive.                        teachers. In the North East, fewer
                                                                                                     than a third of schools in the most
                                                         There is a body of evidence to
                                                                                                     deprived areas had teaching rated
                                                         suggest that social class influences
                                                                                                     as ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ compared
                                                         a parent’s choice of school for
                                                                                                     with 85% in the least deprived, and
                                                         their child, and a school’s type and
                                                                                                     77% in the most deprived areas of
                                                         performance, in turn, is known to
                                                                                                     London. Highly qualified teachers
                                                         influence a child’s attainment. For
                                                                                                     are unevenly spread across our
                                                         example, research has found that
                                                                                                     schools. For example, research
                                                         pupils eligible for Free School Meals
                                                                                                     by the Centre for Education and
                                                         (FSM) attend ‘worse’ schools than
                                                                                                     Employment Research at the
                                                         pupils living on the same street who
                                                                                                     University of Buckingham found
                                                         are not FSM eligible.29
                                                                                                     that in more than a quarter of state
                                                         A reason for this may be found in a         schools in England and Wales, one
                                                         2014 review of research literature30        in four or fewer of physics teachers
                                                         which showed that middle class              had studied the subject to any level
                                                         parents tend to value school                at university. In contrast, none of
                                                         performance and peer group,                 the grammar schools, sixth-form
                                                         whereas lower socio-economic status         colleges or FE colleges, and only
                                                         parents may look for accessibility,         7.8% of the up-to-18 independent
                                                         friendliness of staff and support for       schools were in this position.33
                                                         those of lower ability. This, according
                                                                                                     There is a strong relationship
                                                         to the research, may lead lower
                                                                                                     between quality of teaching and
                                                         socio-economic status groups to
                                                                                                     the attainment levels achieved by
                                                         ‘select themselves out’ of high
                                                                                                     students. Expectations also matter.
                                                         performing schools to avoid possible
                                                                                                     In the best performing schools, there
                                                         rejection or failure. Middle class
                                                                                                     is a culture of teachers expecting
                                                         parents, through their own personal
                                                                                                     the best from every child, regardless
                                                         networks, also tend to have a better
                                                                                                     of their background. But some
                                                         ‘know-how’ with regard to accessing
                                                                                                     teachers and some schools fall short
                                                         information on school quality.
                                                                                                     of adopting such a culture.34 Making
                                                         Quality of teaching is one of the           progress towards raising attainment
                                                         most reliable international indicators      will require every teacher to have
                                                         of a thriving and successful                high expectations of all their pupils.
                                                         education sector.31 Once at
                                                         secondary school, a lack of high
                                                         quality teachers can exacerbate
                                                         existing social, economic and family
                                                         reasons why a young person might
                                                         not attain highly at school.

Opening doors: understanding and overcoming the barriers to university access                                                              19
There is still a large                                                               Students from independent schools
attainment gap by                                                                    are approximately three times more
school type                                                                          likely to achieve three A*-A grades at
                                                                                     A-level than students at state-funded
Unfortunately, and despite huge                                                      schools. In 2013/14, 28.4% of students
efforts across the secondary                                                         in independent schools achieved
education sector, there is still an                                                  three A*-A grades at A-level. In state
attainment gap between state and                                                     schools, 10% of students achieved
independent schools. But while school                                                three A*-A grades. The figure was
type is often used as a proxy for social                                             8.4% at sixth-form colleges, and
class, it is important to acknowledge                                                4.3% at other Further Education

that this is an imperfect measure, likely                                            (FE) sector colleges.36
to conceal the diversity of both state
and private sector institutions.                                                     Within the state school sector,
                                                                                     students in comprehensive schools
                                                                                     are significantly less likely than

     In 2014 of all GCSE and IGCSE
     exam entries from schools                                                       those at selective state schools to
     which are members of the                                                        achieve three A*-A grades at A-level.
     Independent Schools Council 35 :                                                In 2012/13 just 8.1% of students in
                                                                                     comprehensive schools achieved
     • 32.7% received the A* grade,                                                  three A*-A grades compared to
       compared to the UK average                                                    27.0% of students from selective                                              Independent school students
       of 6.7%                                                                       state schools.                                                                enter higher education with
                                                                                                                                                                   better A-level grades than
     • 60.6% were graded A* or A                                                     The graph below shows this                                                    those from state schools. The
       compared to the UK average                                                    attainment gap over time, clearly                                             average A-level attainment of
       of 21.3%                                                                      illustrating how independent school                                           students from independent
     • 94.4% were graded A*-C                                                        students have, for a number of years,                                         schools is ABB, whereas for
       compared to the UK average                                                    consistently outperformed those in                                            those from other schools and
       of 68.8%                                                                      other types of schools.                                                       colleges it is BBC. 37

      Percentage of candidates achieving 3 or more A grades (and A* from 2009/10)
      by school type from 1995/96 to 2013/14 (provisional), and attainment gap
      between comprehensive and independent school candidates


      Percentage (%)


                       20                                                                                                                                                                  attainment gap between
                                                                                                                                                                                           independent and
                                                                                                                                                                                           comprehensive schools












                                                                                                                                                           / 11

                                                                                                                                                                  / 12

                                                                                                                                                                          / 13


























                                                                                                                                                                                             Sixth form college
                                                                                                                                                                              / 14






                                                                                                        Year                                                                                 Other FE sector colleges

Attainment continues to                   Again, these figures show that
                                                         vary widely by ethnicity                  there is a smaller pool of highly-
                                                                                                   qualified students from certain ethnic
                                                         Attainment also varies by ethnicity. In   backgrounds from which selective
                                                         2012/13, pupils in England from White     universities can recruit.
                                                         backgrounds performed broadly
                                                         in line with the national average at      Russell Group universities work
                                                         GCSE level, while Chinese pupils and      in a range of ways to help raise
                                                         Asian or mixed background pupils          primary and secondary attainment
                                                         continued to perform above the            and support teaching. Some of
                                                         national average. Pupils from a Black     these are explored in the raising
                                                         background had shown the most             attainment case examples in
                                                         improvement on previous years,            part two of this report.
                                                         but remain low-performing.
                                                         At A-level the gap between those
                                                         achieving the highest grades
                                                         from different ethnic backgrounds
                                                         is substantial.
                                                         In 2011/12 only 3.5% of A-level (or
                                                         other level 3 equivalent) students
                                                         from Black backgrounds achieved
                                                         three A*-A grades. This compares to
                                                         26.9% of Chinese students, 11.1% of
                                                         Mixed Race students, 10.2% of White
                                                         students, and 9.5% of Asian students.

In 2011/12, the following percentages of students from
different ethnic backgrounds achieved three A*-A grades:

 26.9%                                 11.1%                           10.2%                   9.5%                    3.5%

        Chinese                      Mixed/multiple                             White              Asian                    Black

Opening doors: understanding and overcoming the barriers to university access                                                           21
Putting attainment                       For many years Russell Group
into context                             universities have made targeted use
                                         of ‘contextual information’ to help
Prior attainment is key when it          inform their admissions processes
comes to assessing applications          and access programmes. This
from prospective students. Russell       means that they draw on a range
Group universities want all their        of information, for example school
students to succeed, and demanding       performance, socio-economic or
entry requirements help to ensure        geographical data, or whether
that a student is well prepared to get   the student has spent time in
the best out of and excel on their       care, to help put the candidate’s
chosen course.                           qualifications into the broader
Grades are an excellent and reliable     context in which they were achieved.
indicator of a student’s academic        However, Russell Group universities
ability and overwhelmingly the           do not use contextual information
evidence suggests prior attainment is    in a mechanistic or ‘blanket’ way,
the best predictor of degree success.    and they do not place too much
In national research about the effect    weight on one indicator. This means
of schooling on degree success,          that admissions decisions are
Higher Education Funding Council         not made on the basis of a single
for England (HECFE) noted that:          piece of contextual information.
                                         The evidence to support treating
     ‘ other single item of         candidates very differently in the
     information provides a better       admissions process through the
     indication of how a student will    routine ‘automatic’ use of differential
     get on.’ 41                         offers is simply not robust enough.

More than 80% of students with
grades AAB or above at A-level gain
a first or upper-second class degree.
                                            “Modern economics, like physics, requires a
Approximately 50% or fewer of those           broad range of knowledge and skills with
with CCC or lower do so.42
                                              maths in particular being an intrinsic tool
But grades are not the only
source of information used in the             for analysis. Taking a scientific approach
admissions process at Russell                 to current economic issues requires formal
Group universities. Other factors are
taken into account in determining             modelling of economic relationships and
ability and potential, including
personal statements and teacher
                                              testing hypotheses against data. Therefore,
references which can provide                  mastery of economics requires not merely
valuable additional insights about
the applicant. Some universities also
                                              a narrow knowledge of a few aspects
use interviews and extra tests to             of mathematics, but true fluency and
ensure that pupils with real potential
are identified. So raw grades are             confidence in the subject as indicated by
considered by Russell Group                   high achievement at GCE A-level.”
universities,not just on their own,
but in a broader context.                     Undergraduate admissions tutor for economics,
                                              London School of Economics and Political Science

to get the balance right to ensure
                                                            Most recently, a study has               fairness to all candidates. This is not
                                                            shown that around one in 10              an easy or straightforward task –
                                                            pupils from non-selective state          which is why a range of factors are
                                                            schools will go on to do better          usually taken into consideration,
                                                            at university relative to pupils         often when weighing up candidates
                                                            from selective independent               with the same excellent grades.
                                                            schools who had the same prior
                                                            attainment levels.43 This finding        Where universities do use
                                                            has led to the suggestion that           contextual information it is in
                                                            students from non-selective              specific circumstances, such as:
                                                            schools may have more potential          To help select which students could
                                                            to do very well at university            be eligible for foundation degrees
                                                            than their independent school            or other alternative entry routes
                                                            counterparts, and should
                                                            therefore routinely be given             To help decide whether a student
                                                            less demanding offers for                should be interviewed or set
                                                            university entry.                        additional assignments
                                                                                                     To help in ‘confirmation’ decisions,
                                                                                                     when a student may have narrowly
                                                         Routine use of differential offers          missed the grades in their offer
                                                         raises serious questions about
                                                                                                     To help determine whether a student
                                                         fairness, and would not be in line
                                                                                                     is eligible for an ‘alternative offer’
                                                         with two key principles that underpin
                                                                                                     scheme where, as well as a standard
                                                         the use of contextual information
                                                                                                     course offer, a student may be given
                                                         in admissions decisions – that it
                                                                                                     an alternative and lower offer too.
                                                         should be ‘research-based’ and
                                                                                                     This approach is exemplified by the
                                                         ‘justifiable’.44 Significantly, the study
                                                                                                     ‘Access to Leeds’ scheme described
                                                         found that the small proportion
                                                                                                     in the second part of this report.
                                                         of non-selective state school
                                                         students who outperformed their             When contextual information is used
                                                         independent school peers did so             to give lower offers, it is usually
                                                         with the same, rather than lower            because candidates have been
                                                         grades. Using contextual data in            asked to demonstrate their strengths
                                                         assessing applications needs to be          through other means such as extra
                                                         done carefully; it is very important        tests and extended essays.

Opening doors: understanding and overcoming the barriers to university access                                                             23


Looking at attainment data alone
                                                         gives a good idea of the scale of the
                                                         problem of under-representation,
                                                         but, while attainment is a big piece of
                                                         the puzzle, subject and qualification
                                                         choice is important too

                                                         Subject choice, especially at              It is still the case that some students
                                                         advanced level, can have a large           are not getting the right advice
                                                         impact on which degree courses will        and guidance on the subjects to
                                                         be open to students when it comes          study, with the result that many
                                                         to applying to a competitive course        good students haven’t gained the
                                                         at a selective university.                 qualifications they need for the
                                                                                                    course they want to apply for.
                                                         Many courses at university level
                                                         build on skills and in some cases,         Admissions staff in several of the
                                                         knowledge which students gain              most selective universities report that
                                                         while still at school. Where this is the   it is commonplace for able candidates
                                                         case, universities need to make sure       to seek places on degrees for which
                                                         that all the students they admit have      they are not qualified. The Russell
                                                         prepared themselves in the best way        Group’s online publication Informed
                                                         to cope with their chosen course. For      Choices seeks to address this
                                                         this reason, some university courses       problem, and is discussed in more
                                                         may require students to have studied       detail in the second part of this report.
                                                         a specific subject prior to entry. There
                                                                                                    Qualification and subject choice at
                                                         are some advanced-level subjects that
                                                                                                    Key Stage 4 is also fundamental to
                                                         are required more often than others
                                                                                                    participation in higher education,
                                                         as prerequisites for entry to degree
                                                                                                    as 2014 research by the Institute for
                                                         courses, and the Russell Group refers
                                                                                                    Fiscal Studies and the University of
                                                         to these as facilitating subjects.
                                                                                                    Warwick suggests: 45

Subjects the Russell Group                                  Subjects the Russell Group                “Good grades in highly-
identify as facilitating subjects are:                      identify as facilitating subjects         regarded subjects and
                                                            are: Maths and further maths;             qualifications at Key Stage
MATHS                                                       Physics; Biology; Chemistry;
                                                            History; Geography; Modern
                                                                                                      4 are not only associated
                                                                                                      with a higher probability of
FURTHER MATHS                                               and classical languages;                  staying in education beyond
PHYSICS                                                     English Literature.                       the age of 16 and doing well
BIOLOGY                                                     Looking at STEM A-levels
                                                                                                      at Key Stage 5, but we find
                                                                                                      that they also continue to be
CHEMISTRY                                                   in particular, Maths A-level
                                                                                                      significantly associated with
HISTORY                                                     is commonly required for
                                                            Economics degrees across the
                                                                                                      HE participation decisions and
GEOGRAPHY                                                   Russell Group. Many Engineering
                                                                                                      university outcomes even after
                                                                                                      accounting for subsequent
MODERN AND                                                  courses require both Maths
                                                            and Physics; and some Biology
                                                                                                      measures of attainment.”
CLASSICAL                                                   degrees require both Biology              Institute for Fiscal Studies
LANGUAGES                                                   and Chemistry at A-level.                 and the University of Warwick

Opening doors: understanding and overcoming the barriers to university access                                                                 25
Awareness of the importance of
subject choice and university entry
requirements is higher than it was,
but there is more to be done in
some schools
The increasing take-up of facilitating
subjects, as shown in the below
graph, is welcome, as is the recent
reversal in the trend of entering
students early for GCSE exams.

     Some schools had used an ‘early
     entry’ policy for GCSE exams
     to allow students to take more
     GCSEs in their final year, but
     by banking a ‘good enough’
     result early on, schools had
     been disadvantaging some
     pupils by not allowing them
     to reach their full potential. In
     terms of admission to many
     Russell Group degree courses
     the difference between a C and
     a B grade at GCSE maths, for
     example, can be very important.

Department for Education graph showing entries in facilitating and
    non-facilitating A-level subjects by 16 to 19 year olds since 1996,
    all schools and colleges in England


                        400,000                                                                                                                Facilitating

                        350,000                                                                                                                Non-facilitating
    Number of entries



































In 2013/14, A-level entries in traditional                       In languages, while independent
science subjects – which are often                               schools made up 14.5% of A-level
required for entry to degree courses                             entries overall, they accounted for
– increased by 2.0% combined, when                               27.9% of entries in French, 24.4%
compared with 2012/13. Entries in                                in German, and 28.4% in Spanish.47
mathematics and further mathematics                              In classical languages the proportion
also increased, with maths rising by                             is much higher.
0.9% and further maths by 1.5%.46
However, we know that students
at independent schools account
for a disproportionately large
percentage of these entries. As the
graph overleaf shows, in 2013/14,
independent schools made up 14.5%
of A-level entries overall, but they
accounted for 19.3% of entries in
physics, 17.7% of entries in chemistry
and 15.3% of entries in biology.
Independent schools also accounted
for more than a quarter (27.7%) of
entries in further maths.

Opening doors: understanding and overcoming the barriers to university access                                                                                     27
Percentage of A-level entries from independent school pupils




     Percentage (%)















                                                                                                                                                       t in

                                           tr y







































                                                            r th




                                         The blue line above shows independent schools made up 14.5% of A-level entries overall

Although the English school
performance table measures                                                             We know that independent and
regarding achievement in facilitating                                                  selective state school students
subjects are imperfect48, they shed                                                    are much more likely to achieve
some light on the take-up of and                                                       AAB in two or more facilitating
achievement in facilitating subjects                                                   subjects:
by school type.                                                                        • In 2013/14 13.2% of state
                                                                                         school students achieved
                                                                                         grades AAB or better at
                                                                                         A-level, of which at least two
                                                                                         were in facilitating subjects.
                                                                                         For independent schools
                                                                                         the figure was 34.5%.49
                                                                                       • In 2013/14 10.3% of
                                                                                         comprehensive school
                                                                                         students achieved grades
                                                                                         AAB or better at A-level,
                                                                                         of which at least two were
                                                                                         in facilitating subjects. For
                                                                                         sixth-form colleges the figure
                                                                                         was 9.6%, and for selective
                                                                                         state schools the figure
                                                                                         was 32.2%.50

Percentage of students achieving AAB or better at A-level,
      of which two or more are in facilitating subjects



      Percentage (%)











































Qualification choice is also important
As well as subject choice,                                                   The same data shows that 35%
qualification choice is critical when                                        of 18-year-old English domiciled
it comes to preparing a successful                                           students accepted to low tariff
application for a competitive                                                institutions held BTEC qualifications,
university course.                                                           compared to only 3% who were
                                                                             accepted to higher tariff institutions.
For example, not all vocational
qualifications prepare students                                              While BTECs are the right choice
adequately for courses at Russell                                            for some students, it is worrying
Group universities and some                                                  that students, particularly from
students feel they are not receiving                                         disadvantaged backgrounds, may
the right advice about which                                                 be turning their backs on A-levels,
subjects and qualifications leave                                            without realising that this may close
more doors open later on in life.                                            doors to competitive university
                                                                             courses further down the line.
Evidence from UCAS suggests
BTECs are becoming increasingly
popular, and that students studying
BTECs are more likely to come from
areas of low participation in higher
education (POLAR2 quintiles 1 and 2)
than applicants holding A-levels.52

Opening doors: understanding and overcoming the barriers to university access                                                                 29
High attainment in the right subjects
for the degree course is fundamental
to opening doors, but even with good
grades, disadvantaged students
are less likely to apply to leading
Pupils from top independent schools     The Sutton Trust suggests that
make twice as many applications to      such differences cannot be
the most selective universities as      explained solely by the ability
their equally well-qualified peers      range, but may be influenced by
from the best comprehensives.           parental background, geography
                                        and curriculum, as well as by the
 “The single most important factor
                                        information, advice and guidance
determining the probability that
                                        offered. The complexity of the issues
students obtained a place on
                                        that need addressing regarding
one of the most academically
                                        access is such that many different
demanding degree courses was
                                        stakeholders need to be involved.
the student’s own A level (or
                                        Universities alone cannot find a
equivalent) results. Beyond this,
                                        solution for these problems. But the
the differences, by type of school
                                        evidence from the Sutton Trust also
or college, in participation rates on
                                        gives reason to be optimistic – it
the most academically demanding
                                        shows that something can be done.
courses can be largely explained
by differences in the number and        Research on the London Challenge,
patterns of applications from           published by the Social Mobility
different types of school or college.   and Child Poverty Commission,
                                        found that much of the ‘London
Pupils from independent schools in
                                        effect’ – the rapid increase in
the top fifth of schools according
                                        GCSE attainment of poor children
to average A level attainment,
                                        in London observed since 2004
on average made twice as
                                        – can be traced back to earlier
many applications to ‘Sutton 13’
                                        improvements in attainment in
universities than their peers from
                                        primary schools.55 This demonstrates
comprehensive schools with similar
                                        that a concerted effort, if targeted
overall levels of attainment.” 54
                                        early enough, can make a difference
Even schools with pupils achieving      in raising attainment among the
very similar UCAS tariff points         most disadvantaged.
produce strikingly different
                                        Part two of this report looks at
outcomes. For example, in two
                                        some of the ways Russell Group
comprehensives in the north of
                                        universities are working to
England with identical results, one
                                        challenge negative perceptions
sent 57% of UCAS applicants to
                                        and encourage applications.
selective universities, the other
just 27%.

Under-represented students
                                                         are more likely to apply to more
                                                         competitive degree courses

                                                         As well as advanced-level               UCAS data shows that between
                                                         subject choices, degree subject         2007 and 2009, 36% of all
                                                         choice inevitably has a bearing         applicants to study medicine at UK
                                                         on the likelihood of an applicant       universities were students from
                                                         being admitted, especially at           BME backgrounds. Within the same
                                                         highly selective and competitive        years, 30% of all applicants to study
                                                         institutions.                           law at UK universities and 30% of
                                                                                                 all applicants to study business and
                                                         There is evidence to suggest that
                                                                                                 administration courses were also
                                                         students from state schools may
                                                                                                 students from BME backgrounds.
                                                         apply disproportionately to the most
                                                         competitive courses. This is the case   The fact that BME students tend to
                                                         at the University of Oxford, where      apply in much greater proportions
                                                         between 2010 and 2012, 35% of           to the most competitive courses
                                                         applications by UK domiciled state      means that many very able students
                                                         school students were for the five       find that they are unsuccessful in
                                                         most oversubscribed subjects at the     securing a place.56
                                                         university. This compared to 29% of
                                                         independent school applications.
                                                         There is also evidence to suggest
                                                         that students from ethnic minority
                                                         groups apply in much greater
                                                         proportions to certain courses.
                                                         In some cases progression for
                                                         Black and Minority Ethnic (BME)
                                                         students to university may be
                                                         linked to cultural factors, which may
                                                         be experienced as, for instance,
                                                         parental pressure to study a
                                                         particular subject that leads to
                                                         a professional qualification.

Opening doors: understanding and overcoming the barriers to university access                                                        31
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