Education & Family

Poverty blights pupils' path to elite universities

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Image caption The commission said "bright" pupils from poor backgrounds were less likely to go to elite universities

A child's background can be a bigger deciding factor than their academic ability in how likely they are to get into top universities, says research.

Around 2,000 of the "brightest poorest" children miss out on places at "top universities", a study suggests.

Research into 520,984 children found even the highest performers lose out to less able, better-off pupils if they come from a more deprived background.

The study showed "how unfair" the former system was, the government said.

Academics at the Institute for Fiscal Studies looked at 8,000 children who had been high-achieving at 11 in primary school.

Britain 'wasting talent'

By the age of 16, these children were behind average achievers from wealthy families, said the research, published by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission.

Nine hundred of the 8,000 high-achieving children went on to an elite university, according to the work, which looked at a cohort of children born between 1991 and 1992.

A child's background was measured by the school type, free school meal status during secondary school and an index of socioeconomic status measuring the deprivation of their neighbourhood.

Three times the number of children who are least deprived reach level 3 in reading and maths at Key Stage 1 than the most deprived children.

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Image caption Measures in the survey took into account the deprivation of the local area and free school meal status

The commission, chaired by former Labour MP Alan Milburn, said the research showed how important secondary school was if the government wants to boost the number of children from poorer backgrounds at elite universities.

It called for universities and policymakers to give students from poorer backgrounds advice to help them get into the top institutions.

Mr Milburn said Britain was "wasting young talent on an industrial scale".

He said the young high-achievers were getting lost in a "secondary school maze" that must be improved before social mobility could improve.

"For secondary schools the research is a wake-up call for them to do more to realise the potential of each of these students," he added.

A Department for Education spokesperson said: "This report, analysing the progress of pupils who largely left school before 2010, underlines just how unfair the education system was before this government's programme of reforms.

"Improving the life chances of children from disadvantaged backgrounds and closing the gap between the rich and the poor is our overriding ambition."

She said there were now 250,000 fewer pupils in failing secondary schools than there were in 2010 and that more young people from disadvantaged areas in England were applying to university "than ever before".

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