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Sixth-form gaps 'hinder poorer children's chances of going to university'

Children from poor backgrounds are less likely to go to university than equally bright counterparts from wealthier families, even if they live in the same area and have similar GCSE results, research has found.

The Social Mobility Commission (SMC) findings reveal a progression gap between choices made by children on free school meals and their more affluent peers which cannot be explained by exam results or where they live.

Commission chairman Alan Milburn said the report indicated "something is going badly wrong" and suggested the lack of proper careers advice and the complexity of the post-16 education system made it harder for poorer children to fulfil their potential.

Analysis by Education Datalab for the SMC f ound that just 24% children eligible for free school meals go on to higher education compared with 42% from more privileged backgrounds.

Poorer children are also twice as likely to drop out of education at 16.

The researchers found 20 areas of England with little or no school sixth form provision within a commutable distance.

In these areas, there are significantly lower percentages of pupils studying for academic qualifications at 16, attending a top university or studying for a science or maths degree compared with similar areas.

Young people growing up on London have, on average, 12 post-16 institutions to choose from, while those in the North East and the South West have an average of seven colleges or sixth forms to which they can commute.

Just 36% of white British students go to university, but children from ethnic minorities were more likely to, including up to 72% from Indian backgrounds.

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

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

"That has significant consequences for social mobility and leads to many young people becoming trapped in low-skilled, low-paid jobs.

"Government and schools should be working to create more of a level playing field of opportunity for youngsters to progress."

A separate study from the Institute for Fiscal Studies underlined the difference a child's background makes to their chances of going to university.

The IFS said there had been little progress in closing the gap between wealthier children and those from poorer families over the past decade, with state school pupils from more affluent backgrounds around three times more likely to go to university.

The think tank said: " Despite decades of policy action ... young people from richer families in England are still around three times more likely to go to university than their peers from poorer backgrounds, with nearly 60% of state school students from the least deprived fifth of families going to university at age 18 or 19 compared to less than 20% of those from the most deprived fifth of families.

"Stark statistics like this are at the heart of why recent governments have pledged to increase the number of students from disadvantaged families, schools and neighbourhoods who go on to university - and some (marginal) progress has been apparent in recent years.

"But the slightly faster growth in university participation rates amongst those from poor backgrounds over the last decade or so pales in comparison to the overall size of the gap: a reduction of 1-2 percentage points in a gap of nearly 40 percentage points does not signify much in the way of substantial progress."

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