That 50% target is a pipe dream for some student groups

The Department for Education (DfE) has published its annual statistics on young peoples' participation in higher education by student characteristics - and there’s not much for the sector to be proud of.

There are a couple of suspicions that surround recent ministerial pronouncements about “true social mobility”, the supposed abolition of “Tony Blair’s 50 per cent target” and the apparent abandonment by Michelle Donelan of using the number of students from a disadvantaged group going into higher education to measure progress.

One is that the government would rather not see large swathes of middle class voters have their kids’ places at university denied – something that would have to happen to achieve some of the harder OfS targets. The other is that government would be happy to see access to “higher education” (by which it means academic, rather than vocational education) restricted by social class.

Do any of the actual figures put the government’s glee about the 50% target being dropped into context? Well, as the BBC’s Sean Coughlan pointed out, under that 50% red herring the reality now is 26% participation for pupils on free school meals, 13% for white working class boys, and 85% for those taking A-levels in independent schools.

Here’s ten more of the unflattering yet revealing findings from this year’s numbers:

1. The progression rate for those entitled to free school meals is 26.3 per cent is unchanged since 2017/18. But changes generally mean that the progression rate gap between non free school meal and free school meal pupils has increased to 18.8 percentage points – the widest it has been since 2006/07.

2. White pupils are the least likely to progress to higher education by age 19 at 38.3 per cent. But this isn’t uniform – black pupils are the least likely to progress to high tariff higher education at 9.8 per cent.

3. Progression rates have increased for all ethnic groups in the past year except for black pupils – decreasing for the first time in a decade from 59.9 per cent to 59.1 per cent.

4. Male white British free school meal pupils are the least likely of all the main ethnic groups to progress to higher education by age 19 at just 12.7 per cent. The progression rate has fallen slightly for the first time since 2011/12.

5. Black Caribbean pupils are the least likely of the main ethnic groups to progress to high tariff higher education by age 19. The progression rate of 5.2 per cent is less than half the overall national figure (10.9 per cent).

6. There are as ever major regional differences. 49.0 per cent of those eligible for free school meals at age 15 in inner London progressed to higher education by age 19 compared to fewer than 18 per cent in the South East and South West.

7. London also has the highest progression rates for those not eligible for free school meals at age 15 – well over 50 per cent in both inner London (59.2 per cent) and outer London (57.1 per cent). The South West has the lowest progression rate for those not eligible for free school meals (40.0 per cent).

8. The progression rates for pupils with special education needs (SEN) lag well behind those for other pupils. Just 8.9 per cent of pupils with an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP) or Statement of SEN progressed to HE by age 19 by 2018/19 compared to 20.6 per cent of pupils on SEN Support and 47.3 per cent for pupils with no SEN.

9. Just 13 per cent of pupils who were looked after continuously for 12 months or more at 31st March 2015 progressed to HE by age 19 by 2018/19 compared to 43 per cent of all other pupils. Progression rates for children looked continuously for 12 months or more increased in the latest year after a slight fall in 2017/18.

10. Finally, however arbitrary you think TEF is – even who gets to go to a provider in each medal type is uneven. 40.2 per cent of students who attended non-selective state schools studied at providers with a Gold award in 2018/19 compared to 50.9 per cent of those from selective state schools and 51.2 per cent of those from independent schools.

As ever, the collection notes that variations in progression to higher education by student characteristics can largely be explained by prior attainment. Prior attainment is not accounted for by the measures presented here. But let’s not get into the debate about whose responsibility it is to fix that now.

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