Disadvantaged teenagers are more likely to abandon their plans to attend university than more privileged pupils with the same exam results, new research shows.
This could be overcome by providing 16-year-old pupils with guidance based on their attainment, a study in the Oxford Review of Education says.
The research – which analysed how young people’s expectations of applying to university changes between the ages of 14 and 17 – found that less advantaged teenagers were much more likely to give up on their ambitions than their more advantaged peers, despite having the same test scores.
Pupils with a higher socioeconomic status were significantly more likely to raise their expectations of applying for university in light of improved exam results, according to the study – which used data from the Longitudinal Study of Young People in England.
Meanwhile, the research found that pupils from more disadvantaged backgrounds were "less responsive" to "promising new information at age 16" as more advantaged peers with similar prior academic attainment.
Compared to the most advantaged fifth of young people, the least advantaged fifth had more than twice the probability of switching from being "likely to apply" to "unlikely to apply". And the most advantaged fifth had more than twice the probability of changing from being "unlikely to apply" to "likely to apply".
Dr Jake Anders, of UCL Institute of Education (IOE), author of the report, suggests that it is still possible to raise the educational expectations of bright individuals from less advantaged backgrounds during this period.
He said: “These findings suggest that part of the socioeconomic difference in university applications has its roots during the period when potential applicants are aged between 14 and 17 and, as such, it’s not too late to target policies at this age group to try and narrow the gap.
“Intervening early to maintain expectations, rather than attempting to raise them later, is more likely to be successful as this will ensure individuals engage in steps that keep them on track to be in a position to apply for university.
“Sixteen could also be a key age for interventions. This is a difficult point in time to reach young people as many move between educational institutions or leave full-time education altogether.
"However, it may be the case that providing fresh guidance in the light of exam results could play an important part in ensuring young people get the right educational message."