Widening participation needs to start early

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It has long been known that there is a big gap between the proportion of students from poorer and better-off backgrounds going on to Higher Education, especially to high-status universities and Professor Anna Vignoles, now of the University of Cambridge and then at the UCL Institute of Education in London, led research to find out why.

The researchers created a new ‘linked’ administrative data set for England, consisting of records from the Department for Education and the Higher Education Statistics Agency.Through this they were able to follow two entire cohorts of students who had taken their GCSEs in 2002 and 2003, from age11 until they were 20.
This research documented the persistent gaps in Higher Education participation rates by socio-economic background, despite the many policy efforts to widen Higher Education participation.

The researchers found that the main reason for low numbers of poorer pupils progressing to university was that they tend to do less well at A-Level and so find it harder to move on to Higher Education.

As a result they showed clearly that intervention to widen participation needs to come far earlier in schooling than at the point when students apply to university. Further, once at university, poor students are also more likely to drop out than students from wealthier backgrounds. This suggests that students from poor backgrounds are less well-prepared for university and that those who do enrol may need additional support during their Higher Education.

This work has strongly influenced Higher Education and social mobility policy and Rt Hon Alan Milburn, Chair of the Social Mobility Commission, acknowledged its influence on his work with UCAS and universities.

The government recognised the importance of early advice and guidance in the 2011 Higher Education White Paper and, following its publication, Professor Vignoles and Dr Claire Crawford, a co-author of the research, were invited to a meeting with the Rt Hon the Lord Willetts FAcSS, then Minister of State for Universities and Science, to discuss Higher Education and social mobility.They were then asked to produce a review which fed into the Cabinet Office report on this issue. It also led directly to the creation of the website bestcourse4me.com, providing independent, free, data-based information to A-Level students about degree and institution choices.

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