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Poor white teenagers are least likely in England to go to university

Poor white teenagers in coastal areas or former industrial towns are the least likely to go to university, warns the Office for Students (OfS). 

The watchdog used a new measure to investigate which groups are less likely to go to university. The OfS considered overlapping factors such as poverty, race, gender, and location.

Figures reported by the Department for Education found “male white British free school meals pupils are the least likely of all ethnic groups to progress to higher education”.

Only 16% of all White British teenagers eligible for free school meals go on to attend higher education. However, 40.9% of all other White British teenagers go on to study at university.

This contrasts with ‘Black-African’ free school meals pupils, 59% of whom progress to higher education. Furthermore, 72.8% of ‘Asian-Chinese’ pupils who are eligible for free school meals go on to university.

Young white pupils on free school meals or who came from disadvantaged areas made up 92% of those in the bottom fifth of the rankings in the likelihood of going to university.

“These are the people and places that have been left behind,” said Chris Millward, director of Fair Access and Participation at the OfS.

These are the people and places that have been left behind

– Chris Millward

Particular areas of concern were Great Yarmouth, Boston and Skegness, Clacton, Ashfield, Barnsley, Sheffield, Stoke, Hull, and parts of Birmingham and Nottingham.

Millward warned that “over successive generations” these communities had missed out on the opportunities in the rise in access to universities.

The research emphasised the importance of the location, as the pupils with very low entry rates came predominantly from “former industrial towns and cities across the north and midlands, or coastal towns”.

London has higher rates of pupils attending university than the wider country overall, so white students on free school meals in London have bucked the trend with an entry rate that “has pulled away from that in other parts of the country”.

It is now 8% higher than any other region. The watchdog further notes than less than half of London’s population is white as compared to 80% for the wider country.

The Education Select Committee is now investigating why “left-behind white pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds” appear to be underachieving in their education generally.

The watchdog states that in 2021 they will be exploring how their new measures can be used to improve support for the most underrepresented groups of students through the OfS and university agreed access and participation plans.

They report that research suggests these groups are less likely to see education as the way to improve their lives. This, the watchdog reports, is “not about low aspirations” but a “realistic assessment of the barriers to getting on”.

The watchdog further reports that focus groups have shown that “people in left-behind towns feel the decline of local institutions and civic engagement – the ‘propaganda’ that used to help shape identity and ambitions”.


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