Catchment 22: Pupils’ school and local authority area have substantial impact on chances of getting into university

Welsh school pupils’ chances of getting into university vary dramatically according to the school they attend and the local authority in which it is situated, irrespective of their individual educational attainment, according to a new report from Cardiff University’s Wales Institute of Social & Economic Research, Data & Methods (WISERD).

A new report released today (24 Sept) by the centre, in collaboration with the UK Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW), reveals substantial differences between schools in terms of pupil participation in higher education.

Pupils attending schools with strong records of higher education participation were almost three times as likely to participate in higher education compared with those at schools with average levels of higher education participation, regardless of their educational attainment, socio-economic or ethnic background.

Similarly, those at schools with the lowest records of higher education participation were found to be 42% less likely to participate in higher education than peers at schools with an average level of higher education participation.

While the report states it is difficult to ascertain what brings about these sharp differences in participation chances, it stresses the finding’s importance in highlighting the key role that schools play in shaping patterns of entry into higher education.

The report also showed that the same was true of the 22 local authorities in Wales; though conversely a number of local authorities with the highest levels of socio-economic disadvantages – including Merthyr Tydfil, Rhondda Cynon Taff and Blaenau Gwent – were found to be among those with the highest likelihood of young people participating in higher education. In Merthyr Tydfil, for example, young men are almost three times as likely to participate in higher education as those in the average local authority; with young women more than twice as likely to do so.

Ethnic background was also shown to be a highly significant factor in determining entry to higher education, with young people from both ‘BME’ and ‘White Other’ ethnic backgrounds much more likely to participate in higher education than the ‘White British’ group.

The report makes a number of recommendations, including arguing for the Welsh Government to establish a national strategic framework for widening access to higher education that incorporates all sectors of the education system in Wales, not just the universities. This framework, the report states, would seek to tackle the inequalities present in young people’s attempts to access higher education, and to help increase levels of retention and progression through those qualifications. It also examines the impact that policy initiatives to widen access to higher education have had, and makes recommendations as to how they might be improved.

The study was led by Professors Gareth Rees and Chris Taylor.

Professor Taylor said: “Despite some positive changes in the patterns of participation among some population groups in higher education, with participation by women, some ethnic minority groups, and people with disabilities increasing substantially, major inequalities in levels of participation in higher education remain.

“Fair access to higher education is a key priority for the Welsh Government and this research contributes important messages to the public debate on this important issue.

“For schools, the message is clear – they need to be as concerned about the destinations of school-leavers as they are over levels of attainment. Importantly, the findings indicate clearly that the widening access agenda must be embedded into all stages of the educational journey to shape patterns of entry into higher education. Our recommendation of the establishment of a national strategic framework for widening access, incorporating all sectors of the education system in Wales – not just the universities – would be beneficial in this regard.”

Dr David Blaney, Chief Executive of HEFCW, said: “This significant piece of research on progression to higher education will influence our widening access policies in the coming years. We are grateful to WISERD for giving policy-makers this important insight into the impact of schools versus socio-economic background. We look forward to universities and their partners continuing their widening access work with people of all ages, against a background of renewed, dynamic partnerships with schools and colleges.”

The report is available here: Key Findings can be found on page 3 and Recommendations can be found on page 5.