An exploration of the factors affecting the likelihood of young people in England progressing into higher education

This paper presents the results of research which investigated the extent to which the likelihood of young people in England progressing into Higher Education (HE) is affected by their gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic background, area of residence and school attainment.

The Department for Education’s National Pupil Database was used to gather data concerning the entire cohort of over half a million young people in English state schools who turned 16 between September 2014 and August 2015. Data was accessed concerning pupils’ attainment, personal characteristics and postcode of residence. Records from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) were then used to identify whether or not pupils had progressed to HE by the age of 19.

Descriptive statistics were used to establish raw differences in progression rates between groups of pupils with different characteristics and binary logistic regression was used to explore how individual factors influenced the likelihood of progression once attainment and other characteristics were controlled for statistically.

Female pupils were considerably more likely than male pupils to progress to HE, however this observation could be explained predominantly – though not entirely – by their higher average attainment in school examinations. Pupils in receipt of FSM were substantially less likely to progress to HE than those not in receipt of FSM, though this trend reversed once attainment was controlled for. Pupils residing in areas of low HE participation (as measured by the POLAR classification) were less likely to progress to HE both before and after other factors were controlled for.

Pupils residing in London were considerably more likely to progress to HE than pupils in all other regions of England, though statistical controls reveal that this phenomenon can be explained almost entirely by the higher average attainment of pupils in the capital as well as average demographic differences between London and other English regions.

There are large disparities in progression to HE by pupil ethnicity and these disparities persist even once prior attainment and other characteristics are controlled for statistically. Ethnic disparities in HE progression are largest for pupils with below-average school attainment.

The results overall suggest that some disparities in access to HE (such as by gender and FSM status) might be eliminated if corresponding disparities in school attainment were eliminated. However, the relationship between attainment disparities and HE progression disparities is less straightforward with respect to other characteristics such as pupil ethnicity.