Free school meal pupils in England significantly less likely to reach university

Pupils on free school meals are more than twice as likely to reach university if they grew up in London than in the southwest of England

Latest figures show that more pupils than ever who qualified for free school meals (FSM) enter university, but the scale of inequality between them and their peers is no smaller than 15 years ago.

On 28 July, the Department for Education (DfE) published Widening participation in higher education statistics for England for 2020/21, covering those students that completed full-time education in 2018/19.

The figures show that 28.1% of FSM pupils in that cohort progressed to university, compared to 26.6% the year before and nearly double the 14.2% recorded in 2005/6.

But the progression rate gap (PRG) – the difference between FSM and non-FSM pupils – is unchanged.

Since 2005/6, the PRG ranged between 19.2 and 16.8 percentage points. For 2020/21, the gap is 18.7. In the past 15 years, the gap has only been wider on four occasions.

More FSM pupils reach high-tariff universities – such as the Russell Group – than ever before, rising from 2% to 4.5%. But the PRG here is also no smaller now than 15 years ago.

In a statement on the figures, Andrea Jenkyns – minister for skills, higher and further education – said “that under this government a record proportion of the most disadvantaged students are progressing to higher education”.

Jenkyns, however, did not explicitly comment on the equality gap. Her statement added: “Last year, the government asked universities to reboot their access and participation plans, and we will continue to work with the Office for Students to make sure the brightest pupils from every walk of life are supported to earn places at our most selective institutions.”

In November 2021, then minister Michelle Donelan said that she wanted universities to cut out “complexity and bureaucracy from access and participation plans”, which can run to as much as 30 pages, replacing them with a concise 500-word statement of ambition.

Elsewhere, the figures show that progression rates for girls outpace boys among FSM pupils and those from almost all ethnic backgrounds.

Students from Chinese, Black African, Indian, Bangladeshi and other Asian backgrounds are statistically the most likely to progress to university. White British, White and Black Caribbean and Black Caribbean pupils are the least likely – particularly among boys from those backgrounds.

Among those FSM pupils, the demographic patterns are similar. White British pupils are significantly below the FSM average, with 21% of girls and 14% of boys making it to higher education, coming bottom of the table.

FSM pupils in the East Midlands, east of England, southwest and southeast are statistically the least likely to progress to university, ranging between 21.6% and 18.8%. Significantly outperforming the national FSM average were inner and outer London, 50.4% and 44.3%, respectively. Only the West Midlands had an above-average number of FSM pupils reaching university (29.5%).

It means FSM pupils in London are more than twice as likely to reach university than their peers in most other parts of England.

Read more: Consultation opens on keeping the NSS ‘fit for purpose’

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