Children from poorer backgrounds are less likely to go to university than wealthier students with similar exam results who live in the same area, new research has found.
The Social Mobility Commission study finds there is a “progression gap” between choices made by children on free school meals (FSM) and their more affluent peers which could not be explained either by their exam results, or by where they live.
Overall, the research finds that around a quarter of this gap is purely down to social background.
The report, written by Education Datalab on behalf of the commission, said: “Just 24 per cent of FSM pupils attend higher education versus 42 per cent of non-FSM pupils, with over a quarter of this participation gap arising from students within the same neighbourhood with the same GCSE attainment.”
Alan Milburn, the former Labour cabinet minister who chairs the commission, said: “When low income youngsters from the same area with the same school results are progressing less than their better-off classmates, that is not about lack of ability. It is about lack of opportunity.
“The progression gap has many causes but it suggests something is going badly wrong in our education system.”
The research points to stark geographical inequalities in the choices of institutions available to young people, finding there are 20 areas of the country with little, or no, school sixth form provision within a commutable distance.
In these areas, there are significantly lower percentages of pupils studying academic qualifications at 16, attending a top university or studying for a science or maths degree compared to similar areas.
It highlights the North East and the South West as having the fewest institutions for young people to choose from, which the authors say may be a significant factor in why post-16 and destinations outcomes are so poor in these regions.
Whilst young people growing up on London have, on average, 12 post-16 institutions to choose from, those in the North East and the South West only have an average of seven colleges or sixth forms they could commute to.
Rebecca Allen, director of Education Datalab, said: “The age of 16 marks the first point in most individual’s educational lives where opportunities and choice can become markedly diverse.
“Our research reminds policy makers that they should pay attention both to geographical disparities in access to high quality post-16 provision and to understanding the reasons why students with identical opportunities make very different choices.”
The study also says white British students are far less likely to go to university than ethnic minority students – with the gap even more notable for students from the same area, and with the same GCSE attainment.
It says 36 per cent of white British students went to university, compared to Indian (72 per cent), Pakistani/Bangladeshi (57 per cent), Black (72 per cent).
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We are determined to make sure that everyone who wants to go to university has the opportunity to do so. Through our Higher Education and Research Bill, we are ensuring all institutions go further and faster to promote social mobility and figures for 2016 show that the application rate for 18 year olds from disadvantaged backgrounds is at a record level.
“We also know that careers advice can be essential in helping every young person choose the best direction for them, which is why we are investing £90 million over this Parliament in good quality careers provision across England.”