Why do more girls than boys go on to higher education?

Metal signpost indicating directions of three world famous universities - Harvard / Cambridge / Oxford

by Stacey Dingwall

In February of this year, ministerial guidance was issued to the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) on doing more to widen the participation of disadvantaged groups in higher education. This was accompanied by the issuing of new access agreement guidance to universities and colleges which, for the first time, specified that they should be doing more to widen access among white men from economically disadvantaged groups.

The new guidance came after Prime Minister David Cameron raised concerns about a lack of diversity in the country’s higher education sector in an article for the Sunday Times in January. While David Cameron’s main criticism was of the lack of students from ethnic minority backgrounds being admitted to elite universities like Oxford, he also noted that “white British men from poor backgrounds are five times less likely to go into higher education than others”.

What does the evidence say?

The Prime Minister’s statement about the gender gap is backed up by two key sources. In their 2015 End of Cycle report, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) reported that, while entry rates for both male and female students increased, female entry rates increased three times faster than those of males. At 35.4%, the admission rate for 18 year-old female students was 9.2 percentage points higher than male students, making them 35% (proportionally) more likely to attend university. This equates to 36,000 fewer young men than women entering higher education each year and is the widest gap yet recorded by UCAS – in 2007, woman were 27% more likely to attend university. Furthermore, the report notes that female students from the most disadvantaged areas were 51% more likely than their male peers to enter higher education in 2015. Also highlighted is that while female students across all ethnic groups are more likely to attend university than males, the gap is significantly smaller than that between white students: the next greatest gap is between male and female black students, at a ratio of 1.4. This gap has also narrowed since 2006.

In July of last year, the Sutton Trust’s Independent Commission on Fees published its final report. The Commission was set up in 2011 with the aim of analysing the effect of increased tuition fees on students. While the report found that the number of students applying to university had not been significantly impacted by the increase, it did find that certain groups had been adversely affected. These groups included male students from disadvantaged areas: the report suggested that they are 48% less likely to enter higher education than female students in the same circumstances. The Commission also found that this gap is widening rather than narrowing, indicating that there are areas of the country in which males are facing particular cultural challenges, which could result in “the entrenchment of low income and lack of opportunity”.

Why does this gender gap exist?

The Commission’s findings were widely reported in the press at the time. The key question: why has this happened? Analysis of last year’s GCSE results in England found that the gender gap between boys and girls is at its narrowest in decades, and male pupils’ A-level results are also only slightly below the female average. So why are so many male students choosing to end their educational careers at this stage?

According to Mary Curnock Cook, the chief executive of UCAS, the potential of these students is “somehow being let down by the school system”. Cook’s argument suggests that schools are not doing enough to adequately prepare and inspire their male students to continue their education after school. Brian Lightman, of the Association of School and College Leaders, however, has taken an opposing stance on this, and suggests that the narrowing of the attainment gap between male and female pupils can in fact be attributed to schools more closely monitoring the performance of boys. He also believes that changing the focus of assessment from coursework to more exams has in fact resulted in the system now being in favour of male pupils.

The impact of the introduction of tuition fees must also be acknowledged. Speaking to the Guardian in March of this year, male pupils at a school in Ipswich where double the national average of pupils are in receipt of pupil premium funding expressed their unwillingness to enter into years of substantial debt for a course where there is no guarantee of a job at the end. This sentiment perhaps explains why the number of students taking up paid apprenticeships increased by 63.5% between 2010 and 2011. A different group of students from south London also raised the issue of social class. A lot of these boys would be the first in their families to attend university. Their admissions of not wanting to stand out academically for fear of what others may think, or seeming like an “outsider’ reveal the impact that growing up in a disadvantaged area can have on aspiration.

Others suggest that the problem lies in the structure of the post-compulsory education system. Courses in which female students have traditionally dominated, such as fashion and beauty, are increasingly being changed from college courses to three-year undergraduate courses, while qualifications for bricklaying and plumbing continue to be studied at further education and apprenticeship level. Recent years have also seen a focus on campaigns to try and encourage more female students to study more science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) -related courses, for example, without equivalent targeting of male pupils.

What is being done to reduce the gap?

Following the guidance issued to the OFFA, universities minister Jo Johnson announced that the government had also asked universities to move towards a name-blind admissions system by 2017, and would introduce legislation to scrutinise the process in order to reveal where offer rates for the poorest students were particularly low. Johnson explained that the guidance asks universities, in return for the access agreements that allow them to charge fees up to the maximum of £9,000, to focus more strategically on groups, such as white British boys, with the lowest participation rates by “spending smarter” and focusing their outreach activities where they are most needed.

The answer, it would seem, is for all stakeholders to “do more”. However, despite the government setting a target to double the amount of poorer pupils admitted to university, a specific campaign aimed at narrowing the divide has yet to be announced. It could be argued that placing the onus on universities to increase the number of admissions of white male students is the wrong answer – some, like Tony Sewell, former teacher and CEO of education charity Generating Genius, argue that this is a problem that needs to be addressed at a much earlier stage, as the gap shows signs of developing from primary level.

Overall, it would appear that addressing issues around social class in the system is key to stopping the divide from increasing any further. While Oxford University rebutted the Prime Minister’s assertion that it did not do enough to attract pupils from all walks of life, the figures speak for themselves: the most advantaged students are still 6.8 times more likely to go to the most elite universities than disadvantaged students. The Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission regularly reports on a growing social divide in the country, including a system which continues to grant access to the elite universities according to family background rather than aptitude and ability. As the Commission’s latest state of the nation report notes, there is little chance of the government meeting its target until outreach activity becomes more focused on the areas where access is particularly low.

Hitting the glass floor: the impact of social background on earnings


By James Carson

How much does family background matter when it comes to your job prospects later in life? That’s the focus of a report from the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission which examined the relationship between social background, childhood academic ability and adult success in the labour market.

The study looked at the lives of 17,000 people born in Britain in the same week in 1970 to examine the impact of social background on earnings. It was specifically looking for evidence that initially low attaining children from affluent backgrounds were more likely to succeed in the labour market than their more gifted peers from less advantaged families.

Demography and destiny

The study found that :

  • low attaining children from better-off families have a greater chance of being highly successful in the labour market;
  • high attaining children from less advantaged family backgrounds are less likely to be in a high earning job as an adult.

The report  suggests that more advantaged, better-educated parents ‘hoard the best opportunities’ for their less academically inclined children to help them overtake more gifted but poorer peers.

Examples of how they do this may include:

  • investing time and resources in education to help children showing early signs of low attainment to recover and achieve good qualifications;
  • providing better careers advice and guidance;
  • placing a high value on ‘soft skills’, such as self-confidence, decisiveness, leadership and resilience, which employers ultimately value;
  • prioritising school choice;
  • helping their children into internships and employment through informal social networks.

Breaking the glass floor

Alan Milburn, chair of the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, believes the findings highlight a social scandal:

“It has long been recognised that there is a glass ceiling in British society that prevents children with potential progressing to the top. This research reveals there is a glass floor that inhibits social mobility as much as the glass ceiling.”

Among the suggestions the report makes to remove barriers that block downward mobility, are:

  • reducing inequalities in parental education through adult skills programmes;
  • ensuring children from less advantaged backgrounds have access to the support and opportunities available to their peers, including good careers information and guidance;
  • improving school quality in disadvantaged areas, improving access to high-quality schools and universities and removing financial barriers to higher education;
  • taking action to reduce ‘opportunity hoarding’: including tackling unpaid internships, and encouraging employers to remove barriers in the recruitment process that inadvertently prevent those with high potential from disadvantaged backgrounds being successful.

Levelling the playing field for children from less advantaged families won’t happen overnight. But the report underlines the importance of making an immediate start to ensure adults of the future achieve success because of merit and effort rather than parental wealth and status:

“A society in which the success or failure of children with equal ability rests on the social and economic status of their parents is not a fair one.”

Further reading

We’ve blogged recently on related issues – widening participation to higher education and how inequal access to work experience opportunities is limiting social mobility.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team.

Why child poverty can’t be allowed to slip down the political agenda

By Morwen Johnson

Current forecasts suggest that across the UK, 4.7m children will be living in poverty by 2020 (equivalent to nearly the population of Scotland). This is despite the fact that the Child Poverty Act 2010 legally binds the UK Government to a commitment to end child poverty by 2020. This commitment was reiterated in the Conservative’s pre-election manifesto.

Two recently published briefing papers from the Scottish Universities Insight Institute review the literature on poverty and children’s health and wellbeing, and poverty and children’s education. The findings add to an extensive evidence base confirming the long-term negative impact of child poverty on life chances and adult outcomes.

At the report launch event in May, there was extensive discussion about the continuing challenge of reducing child poverty, especially in the context of George Osborne’s pledge to make £12bn of cuts to the welfare budget by the financial year 2017-18.

Rise in in-work poverty

As the rhetoric in both politics and the popular press swings back to presenting the economy in a positive light, it’s easy to forget that economic growth must also result in quality jobs. Analysis by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission shows that 5 million Britons are in jobs earning less than £7.50 an hour. And a quarter of these have been stuck in this situation for more than a decade.

Douglas Hamilton, one of the Commissioners of the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission who spoke at the Scottish Universities Insight Institute event, suggested that policy approaches which rely on welfare to work to meet child poverty targets are doomed, as this ignores the fact that getting parents into work can still leave children living in poverty. In fact the number of children in poverty living in workless households is at an all-time low.

Social justice and economic imperative

The Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission said in its State of the Nation report last year that the challenge was “… to prevent Britain becoming a permanently divided society and ensure there is a social recovery alongside the economic recovery.” Donald Hirsch of the Centre for Research in Social Policy has estimated that child poverty costs £29bn each year in costs to the Exchequer and reduced GDP – an economic justification for continuing to address child poverty in a targeted way. However, if issues such as underemployment and a lack of affordable housing are allowed to become a norm in our society, it will inevitably impact on the likelihood of reducing child poverty.

Debates over how child poverty is defined and measured are likely to continue, but should not obscure the very real, everyday consequences for children of growing up in poverty. Research by Scotland’s Commissioner for Children and Young People found that children living in poverty struggled with having school uniforms, resources for school work, going on school trips and having basics such as housing and food. Unfortunately, stigma can also dissuade families from registering their children for free school meals.

1 in 6 children are still living in relative poverty in the UK. And that seems to be a reality which no one wants to put on the front page of the newspapers.

Read some of our other blogs looking at the issue of poverty:

Become a member of the Idox Information Service now, to access a wealth of further information on social exclusion and poverty, including case studies and commentary. Contact us for more details.

Young people’s quest for work experience hampered … by lack of work experience

By Stacey Dingwall

The UK Commission for Education and Skills has released a new report, Catch 16-24: youth employment challenge, which suggests that today’s young people are facing a ‘postcode lottery’ when searching for work experience.

According to the UK Commission’s analysis, most English regions are lagging behind Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in terms of the number of employers offering work experience opportunities to young people. The Humber, with one of England’s highest youth unemployment rates, is identified as being a particular work experience ‘blackspot’, with only 29% of employers offering placements.

The new report comes a year on from the publication of another report from the UK Commission, Not just making tea: reinventing work experience. This outlined the vital importance of work experience not only for young people, but for employers themselves, and dispelled common myths that often deter employers from offering opportunities. Multiple case studies showed the benefits enjoyed by companies, large and small, when they invest in young people through work experience.

Why then, a year on, does the UK Commission’s latest research still indicate that only 20% of employers across the UK currently offer work experience to schools, and only 12% to colleges?

A barrier to social mobility

The report suggests that location is not the only factor hindering young people’s chances of obtaining work experience – personal contacts also play a significant role. The need to ensure that employment outcomes for young people are not constrained by their social or ethnic backgrounds (“it’s not what you know, but who you know”) has also been raised by both the Sutton Trust and the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission in the last year.

The Sutton Trust’s Internship or Indenture? briefing supports the UK Commission’s description of London as the “internship capital of the country” and places the total cost of undertaking a six-month unpaid internship in the capital at £6,081 (including transport costs) and £5,078 for doing so in Greater Manchester. The importance of undertaking internships and work experience placements in order to gain entrance to professions such as law and finance is highlighted, alongside the fact that only those from wealthy backgrounds are likely to be able to bear the costs of working for free for any significant period of time.

In order to tackle ‘elitist Britain’, the government’s Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission recommended that both schools and employers should do more in order to ‘close the gap’ in the provision of work experience opportunities to pupils from less affluent backgrounds.

Employers want new recruits to have work experience

The ‘catch’ for young people in terms of work experience is laid bare in the UK Commision’s new report: 66% of employers rate experience as a ‘critical’ or ‘significant’ factor when it comes to recruitment decisions yet less than a third of this figure are currently prepared to offer opportunities.

The impact of this on the UK’s continuing high rate of youth unemployment is highlighted – the UK has “German levels of adult unemployment but Eurozone levels of youth unemployment”. The UK Commission has previously used case studies of the work experience systems of countries including Australia and the Netherlands to show the positive benefits of integrating work experience into education for youth employment rates.

So, what will it take for UK employers and educational institutions to adopt closer relationships in order to improve the work experience offer for young people?

Improved collaboration

Despite indications that the number of employers taking on apprentices is increasing, and encouraging examples of collaborations between schools and employers, Katerina Rüdiger of the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development (CIPD) believes that the government should do more to facilitate employer-education relatationships. Reacting to the new UK Commission report, Rüdiger called for the government to “create a role in local authorities so they can work with the National Careers Service to provide resources and broker relationships between young people, schools and employers to generate routes into work”. The involvement of government in facilitating this type of collaboration has also been described as vital by the UK Commission.

The UK Commission has described the December 2014 announcement of a new careers and enterprise company for English schools (with the aim of encouraging employers to link directly to pupils throughout their education) as “promising”. This follows its previous call for the rest of the UK to follow the lead of the Scottish Government which, through its commission for developing Scotland’s young workforce, is aiming to achieve links with employers for each of the country’s secondary schools over the next three years.

Whether these initiatives will have the required impact on the UK’s work experience offer for young people remains, of course, to be seen in another year’s time.

Further reading

The Idox Information Service has a wealth of research reports, articles and case studies on work experience and youth employment. Items of interest include:

Work experience: benefits and impact (Series briefing note 44)

Undergraduates’ memories of school-based work experience and the role of social class in placement choices in the UK

Making work experience work: top tips for employers

Work experience doesn’t work, says Wood Commission

The effects of work experience during higher education on labour market entry: learning by doing or an entry ticket?