Polar opposites

January 21, 2016

It is good to see that the sector is taking notice of some of the disquiet about the use of low participation neighbourhood data (“Higher education access inequality ‘wider than previously thought’”, News, 14 January). One can hardly be surprised that “neighbourhood-level admissions data that are currently used, known as participation of local areas (POLAR), mask pockets of deep deprivation in relatively affluent areas” when you know that LPNs are based around electoral geography, not meaningful communities. Such neighbourhoods are usually far too large to capture a single community; indeed they were often designed to avoid precisely that. When you break down rates of participation and divide these wards into quintiles (with LPNs the lowest two), then whole towns and cities can be LPNs, even when they contain small gentrified areas.

As a paper by myself and Neil Harrison demonstrated in 2014, there are actually more young people from lower socio-economic groups (National Statistics socio-economic classifications 4-7) outside LPNs than in them – and 29 per cent of young people (and 54 per cent of applicants to higher education) living in LPNs are from NS-SECs 1-3. This mismatch has a major impact on policy decisions because of how the use of these data is encouraged, for example in producing performance indicators, including league tables; in the monitoring of application patterns; in decisions about targeting outreach activities to communities, schools and individuals; in the allocation of student opportunity funding to universities; and in allocating funding to students in the form of discretionary bursaries and scholarships to those living in LPNs. Unsurprisingly, the inaccuracy of these data is beginning to show up in disparities reported in Office for Fair Access access agreements: some institutions have noted a counter-intuitive increase in applications from those in LPNs alongside declining applications from lower NS-SEC groups, applications from those from low-performing schools and applications from those from minority ethnic backgrounds.

The wider implications can be complacency from policymakers about the effectiveness of policy and a poor use of public funds. The misuse of LPNs can also potentially create unfairness in that young people from deprived homes outside LPNs get less assistance while young people from affluent homes within LPNs get more assistance – the deadweight effect. This new research from Ucas reinforces our argument that LPN status should not be used in isolation as an indicator of neighbourhood participation and certainly not as an indicator of an individual’s likelihood to progress into higher education.

Colin McCaig
Principal research fellow, Centre for Education and Inclusion Research
Sheffield Hallam University

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