Poor white people living on the coast or in former industrial towns among the least likely to enter HE

Only 16% of white British students eligible for free school meals go into higher education, says the OfS’ Chris Millward, after the body used a new measure to gauge representation

Poor young white people living on the coast or in former industrial heartlands are among the least likely to enter higher education.

That’s according to Chris Millward, the Office for Students’ (OfS) director for fair access and participation.

“These are the people and places that have been left behind,” he writes today [January 26], in an essay expanding on evidence he gave to an Education Select Committee inquiry earlier this month.

Millward cites research last year from the Department for Education, which found that only 16% of white British students eligible for free school meals go into higher education. That compares to 47-73% of Asian and 32-59% of black students in the same category.

The gap between the entry rates for white British students entitled to free school meals and those who are not is particularly striking, at 25%.

Geography is another key factor. In London, for example, the HE entry rate for white students in receipt of free school meals is almost 8% higher than the North East, the next best performing region, and double the rate of the rest of the South East.

This is not about low aspirations or wanting any less for children; it is about expectations – Chris Millward, OfS

“Virtually all of the lowest-participation neighbourhoods across England are in formerly industrial towns and cities across the north and midlands, or coastal towns,” writes Millward.

“It is the experience across successive generations that perhaps distinguishes these communities from those with higher proportions of ethnic minorities, as in London.”

That experience, he says, is rooted in the postwar years. Countering the enduring perception that the era was a golden age of education-based social mobility, Millward cites Lord Robbins’ 1963 review of higher education, which found that only 200,000 students – fewer than 10% of the age cohort – were in HE full-time. And that despite polling the previous year finding that ‘more than 80 per cent of working-class and middle-class parents wanted university for their children’.

Today, there are two million students in higher education, representing approximately half of the cohort in total, but significantly fewer in the communities identified by Millward.

“The expansion of educational opportunities, and the belief that equality of opportunity would flow from this, have not delivered for them,” he writes. “So they are less likely to see education as the way to improve their lives.

“The most important ingredient for higher education participation is the level of attainment in school. In areas where there are lower levels of attainment, you will often find higher levels of unemployment, ill health and poor housing, and lower household income.

“Research suggests that this is not about low aspirations or wanting any less for children; it is about expectations – a realistic assessment of the barriers to getting on. Schools can do a lot to shift expectations, but as recent focus groups have shown, 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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To better understand the complexities behind low participation rates, the OfS is using a new measure, Associations Between Characteristics (ABCs), which takes account of such factors as gender, race, poverty and place.

This, says Millward, is how the body identified that 90% of the students in the lowest-participation quintile using this measure are white British, and have either received free school meals or grown up in a low-participation neighbourhood.

“During 2021, we will be exploring how this new measure can improve support for the most underrepresented groups of students, which is regulated through the access and participation plans universities and colleges agree with the OfS,” writes Millward.

Echoing the Social Mobility Commission’s call to combine educational interventions with other measures to improve local prosperity, the OfS is ramping up its Uni Connect programme (formerly the National Collaborative Outreach Programme).

The scheme funds 29 partnerships of universities, colleges and local agencies, and engages with parents as well as the students themselves.

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