Sutton Trust: POLAR ‘very poor indicator of family income’

Social mobility charity calls for OfS review, saying almost half (48%) of children classified as disadvantaged by POLAR are not from a low-income background

Universities need access to better data in order to ensure widening participation, says The Sutton Trust.

In new research by Professor John Jerrim of UCL Social Research Institute, the social mobility charity says the measures most commonly used by universities to measure disadvantage – for example, POLAR – are ineffective when it comes to identifying low-income students.

The report is designed to help universities, practitioners and policymakers decide what proxy measures of family background they should use in their outreach and contextual admission programmes.

Using data from the Millennium Cohort Study (MCS) – specifically on 7,439 children born in 2000-02 in England, whose parents reported their family income when the child was age nine months, three, five, seven, 11 and 14 – the Sutton Trust report investigates nine proxy measures, and notes the number of false negatives (ie proportion of children not classified as disadvantaged when they should be) and false positives (those classified as ‘disadvantaged’ when they should not be).

The report concludes that of the nine measures analysed in the research, the most effective available indicator of childhood poverty is the number of years a child has been eligible for free school meals. However, universities do not currently have access to verified data on free school meal eligibility and instead depend on students telling them.

The commonly used POLAR measure – which assigns a young person to one of five groups, depending on the proportion of young people in their area that go to university – is “a very poor indicator of family income, in part because it was never designed to measure socio-economic disadvantage”, says The Sutton Trust.

Almost half (48%) of children classified as disadvantaged by POLAR are not from a low-income background. POLAR also misses many BAME students, students living in London, those with young mothers and those in rented accommodation.

How the measures measure up:

  • Participation of Local Areas (POLAR)

False negatives: 39%
False positives: 48%

  • Index of Multiple Deprivation (IMD)

False negatives: 27%
False positives: 30%


False negatives: 24%
False positives: 31%

  • Free school meals (FSM)

False negatives: 26%
False positives: 20%

  • Income Deprivation Affecting Children (IDACI)

False negatives: 27%
False positives: 32%

  • Output Area Classification (OAC)

False negatives: 27%
False positives: 32%

  • Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) composite indicator

False negatives: 21%
False positives: 32%

  • TUNDRA (Tracking underrepresentation by area)

False negatives: 52%
False positives: 42%

  • Family income measured in a single year

False negatives: 14%
False positives: 21%

  • Parental education/“first-in-family”

The report says: “Based upon young people’s (or possibly their parents) reports, and is hard to independently validate. This is because there is no easy accessible administrative database capturing information about parental education.”


Universities only have limited access to information about prospective students’ socio-economic background. Information is often only available about their home postcode.

“In order to widen access fairly and effectively, universities need to know which students would benefit most from outreach programmes and contextual offers,” said Sir Peter Lampl, founder and chairman of the Sutton Trust and chairman of the Education Endowment Foundation.

“But as today’s research shows, the measures they use are not as effective as they should be at identifying low-income students. They miss out some who deserve support while inaccurately flagging others. It is of particular concern that local area indicators such as POLAR are biased against some groups like young people from BAME backgrounds or those that live in rented accommodation.”

“As a practical next step, the government should make sure that universities have access to data on free school meal eligibility, and target support where it is most needed.”

The report’s recommendations

The Sutton Trust is making several recommendations in today’s report to improve the targeting of university widening access schemes and the use of contextual admissions.

  • The Department for Education needs to ensure that universities have access to data on free school meal eligibility so that they can make the fairest admissions decisions.
  • There should be greater transparency and consistency from universities and employers when communicating how contextual data is used and how certain markers are used.
  • The Office for Students (OfS) should review the role of POLAR in advance of the next round of Access and Participation Plans, as this is a key driver of universities’ behaviour. These plans set out how individual universities will improve access and for underrepresented groups and are monitored by the OfS.


Matt Western MP, Labour’s shadow universities minister, responding to The Sutton Trust’s new report said:

“This report shows ministers must do far more to equip universities with the necessary information to ensure diverse admissions, ending current processes which risk excluding students from ethnic minority backgrounds, among others.

“The government’s consultation on university admissions is a chance to finally heed Labour’s call for reform to create an admissions system that genuinely gives equal opportunities to all students.”

You might also like: Admissions reform: Universities urge caution as consultation closes

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