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You are reading: Subject to Background: What promotes better achievement for bright but disadvantaged students?

Written by Pam Sammons, Katalin Toth & Kathy Sylva, University of Oxford Department of Education


Economic and educational inequalities continue to hinder social mobility and decrease the chances of poor children achieving the same levels of academic success as their more advantaged peers.

There is considerable evidence that an educational equity gap exists across all phases of the English educational system and that the effects of disadvantage are cumulative so that the gap tends to increase as children grow older, especially during secondary schooling. Social and financial disadvantages are likely to reduce the chances of young people’s later attainment post 16 and especially, at Advanced level studies at age 18, so that poor children, even if high achievers are less likely to enrol in higher education. In 2013, the Government reported that young people living in the most disadvantaged areas of the country are nearly three times less likely to participate in higher education than their peers living in more advantaged neighbourhoods, and it was found that the most advantaged young people are seven times more likely to attend the most selective universities as the most disadvantaged.

Most previous research has focused on the immediate requirements students need for higher education entry (studying the equity gap in terms of differences in GCSE or A-level results). However, in order to fully understand the interconnections between family background, school, academic attainment and success in being admitted into higher education, we need to follow children’s academic trajectories across all phases of education, starting with the early years. Individual, family and school characteristics are likely to have various influences at different educational stages, some of them having longer term effects, others perhaps influential at particular time points. Understanding these different influences helps us to pinpoint the main drivers and implications for policy makers and practitioners. Few studies have investigated children’s trajectories from earlier phases of education until entry to higher education by simultaneously examining both the influence of background, neighbourhood and educational experiences.

This study was commissioned by the Sutton Trust to provide a longitudinal perspective on children’s education careers, starting with the specific characteristics that increase the chances of disadvantaged children becoming high achievers by the end of primary school and then to follow this group up to age 18 to see whether they continue to experience academic success. It is the first of several reports for the Trust looking at this group of students. The research aims to illuminate the ‘drivers’ of success by:

  • analysing the later AS and A-level attainment of ‘bright’ children (those identified in primary school who achieved Level 5+ at the end of Key Stage 2) from disadvantaged families as they move through secondary education and comparing their outcomes to those of other bright children who were more advantaged.
  • exploring the characteristics of students who gain ‘good enough’ A-level qualifications for university entrance and identify the main barriers and facilitators for obtaining good A-level results for the most disadvantaged students.
  • establishing what enhances or reduces the later academic success of such bright but disadvantaged students in secondary school, this will also address how far such students take up facilitating subjects for entry to high status universities and more demanding higher education courses.

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Sammons, P., Toth, K. and Sylva, K. 2015. Subject to Background: What promotes better achievement for bright but disadvantaged students?. The Sutton Trust, London.