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UCAS End of Cycle Report 2019

Volume 805: debated on Tuesday 8 September 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action they have taken, if any, in response to the finding in the UCAS End of Cycle Report 2019, published on 30 January, that white ethnic group students from state schools had the lowest entry rate to higher education.

My Lords, the Government are committed to transforming the lives of young people so that they can go as far as their hard work and talent will carry them, regardless of their background or where they live. The Government acknowledge the findings of the UCAS 2019 End of Cycle Report. Our reforms since 2010 have set out an ambitious agenda and made substantial investments in opportunities for all young people.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend the Minister for his Answer. Recent Centre for Social Justice analysis of education results by ethnicity found that white British children on free school meals had performed worst at GCSE by a significant margin for many years. How will the Government improve GCSE results so that poor white boys and girls stand a better chance of getting into higher education? How do they plan to improve parental engagement in education, as teachers can only ever be part of the solution?

My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely right that, when it comes to higher education, the seeds of equal opportunity are sown much earlier. It has been the Government’s mission over the past decade, under successive Prime Ministers and Education Secretaries, to break the correlation between parental wealth and pupil achievement by raising standards for all pupils. That is what our reforms are doing, with the knowledge-rich national curriculum and more children in good or outstanding schools. Part of the reforms has also been about giving more power to school leaders and to parents, who, as my noble friend says, have a crucial role to play, such as in the opening of more than 500 new free schools.

My Lords, while it is true that the gap in HE entry rates between the most advantaged and the most disadvantaged has narrowed, nevertheless the UCAS report for 2019 shows that the entry rate for students from the most disadvantaged areas is 21%, whereas it is 47% for the most advantaged students. Moreover, the gap is much higher in universities with higher entry tariffs. What do the Government propose to do about this, given their recently stated commitment to levelling up?

My Lords, the noble Baroness is absolutely right to point out some of the distinctions between the attainment gap at different levels of pupils’ education. I am pleased to say that, on this year’s numbers, disadvantaged 18 year- olds are entering higher education at record rates; 23% of 18 year-olds in England have been granted access to higher education this year. That shows the progress that we have made but also the work that still must be done.

My Lords, there is a trade-off in sixth forms between the depth of provision and the quality of provision. If more sixth-form colleges in white, working-class areas were to narrow the range of provision and concentrate on the quality, results would go up. This is not raised in the report. Will the Government give it some consideration?

My Lords, the noble Lord is right that we need to increase aspiration for people at all levels, and our reforms to the national curriculum have been about equipping people with a knowledge-rich curriculum that will carry them as far as their talents can, whatever route they wish to pursue after the age of 18.

My Lords, the Government’s levelling-up commitments are rightly not just about regional growth but about people. Does the Minister agree that improving educational outcomes for poor white boys should be a specific part of the levelling-up commitments and a measurable part of those commitments?

First, I pay tribute to the work my noble friend did as Education Secretary to increase opportunity and drive up standards. Levelling up means setting the highest standards for all pupils and ensuring that they are helped to achieve their full potential, regardless of their background or location. We want schools to address the needs of every individual pupil using the resources available to them, including the pupil premium. As she knows, the disadvantaged white pupil cohort is the largest such group in our schools, so attracts the most pupil premium.

My Lords, universities and colleges make great efforts to improve inclusivity strategies, but can find it difficult to access the information to identify the particularly disadvantaged youngsters, such as free school meals data. Could that information be made available to them so that they can more readily identify the needy children?

That is a sensible suggestion, which I shall take back to the department. The noble Baroness is absolutely right to point out the important work that universities do to increase access. They work with the Office for Students to increase access to university for people from underrepresented backgrounds. A number of universities are also helping with specialist maths schools—indeed, the University of Liverpool Mathematics School opened last week.

My Lords, does the Minister recognise Professor Jon Rasbash’s research at Bristol University, which found that only 20% of attainment is attributable to school-level factors? The remaining 80% is due to pupil-level factors, half of which, he says, are “family effects”. What is the Government’s response to his suggestion that policies targeted at the family level may provide an effective means of improving pupils’ progress?

I have not seen the research that my noble friend cites, but I will certainly look it up and read it with interest. He is right that our reforms have been focused on breaking the link, as I said, between the financial background of pupils’ parents and the pupils’ level of attainment in education. As part of that, we have made a record investment in this area, including 15 hours of free early education for disadvantaged two year-olds right at the very beginning.

My Lords, while support from family is key to assisting a child’s life chances, we all remember teachers who inspired a love of learning. Does the Minister agree that schools that enhance the aspirations of children from a working-class background should be recognised as such, perhaps by measuring the number of pupils with an entitlement to free school meals who go on to higher education?

The noble Lord is absolutely right to point out the important work done by teachers in raising aspirations and encouraging pupils. I know that as a comprehensive schoolboy who went to Oxbridge. Part of our reforms has been about giving more autonomy to school leaders so that they can follow the evidence and do what is best to raise standards in our schools and help people go as far as their talents can carry them.

My Lords, the admissions system has barely changed since I was one of just 10% of school leavers to go to university in 1970. It is now nearly 50%, yet it is assumed that largely the same system is still fit for purpose. Palpably it is not, and one thing that must change is the introduction of post-qualification applications and an end to the corrupted system of unconditional offers of places. In Scotland there is an aim for 20% of all entrants to higher education to come from the 20% most deprived backgrounds by 2030. In light of the UCAS report, can the Minister say why in England there are no targets for the involvement of white students from lower socioeconomic groups and when the Government plan to introduce them?

My Lords, there are no national targets, but all higher education providers that want to charge higher-level fees need to have an access and participation plan agreed by the Office for Students. As part of those plans, they set the activities and targets to support students from disadvantaged backgrounds going to their institutions. If a provider fails to meet its access and participation plan, the OfS can hold it to account, while respecting its academic freedom and institutional autonomy.

My Lords, I declare an interest as chancellor of Cardiff University. The A-level results fiasco has distorted university recruitment and universities face considerable costs to cope with problems not of their making. Can the Minister assure us that they will be given additional funding and assisted to meet government targets such as those affecting the underrepresented group referred to in this question, who often need additional support when they gain their places at university?

The noble Baroness is right. This has been an extraordinarily difficult year both in schools and for universities, and we have worked closely with both to make sure they are equipped to do everything they need to do to help people in this challenging year. As I say, the UCAS data for this year’s entry shows a rise in the number of people accepted to university, including a record rate of 23% of people from disadvantaged backgrounds going, which is encouraging to see in these challenging times.

My Lords, the Minister will know of the National Education Opportunities Network’s work in widening participation and outreach. Last year it found that less than 40% of universities were doing outreach with white males and less than 12% with white females. Will he please have a look at what the problem is there, in the light of his comments about access and participation? It is clearly not widespread.

I will certainly follow up on that. As I say, the Office for Students has a responsibility to work with universities that want to charge the higher-rate fees to have such plans in place and to make sure they are enforced.