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University entry row is a sideshow

There has been much debate about how universities should broaden their intake of students. But for many working-class youngsters this discussion is an irrelevance. Their educational future was set when they quit school at 16.

The latest findings from the Government's Youth Cohort Study show that whether you stay on at school after 16 still depends heavily on your social status.

Ninety-five per cent of 16-year-olds from "higher professional" backgrounds were still in education or training in 2002. The equivalent figure for the "routine" occupational group was only 76 per cent.

Once the numbers in employment are added to those still in education or training the gap between classes is reduced. Nevertheless, some 11 per cent of children of parents in routine jobs were not in education, training or in jobs. This compares with just 2 per cent from higher professional families.

Although girls are more likely to be in education and training than boys at 16, a slightly higher percentage of boys have jobs. So overall there is no gender difference in the proportion of 16-year-olds in education, training or employment (93 per cent). A higher proportion of black and Pakistani youths were not in education, training or employment (12 per cent compared with the national average of 7 per cent). But just 3 per cent of young Indians are in this category. The Government's new 14-18 strategy could help other ethnic groups achieve this figure. But it will not be easy.

Truancy figures suggest many who formally quit education and training at 16 actually gave up several years earlier. Their problems are far more important for the nation than those of students rejected by Bristol University.

John Howson is a visiting professor at Oxford Brookes University and a director of Education Data Surveys

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