The estimated proportion of state school students eligible for free school meals (FSM) entering higher education by the age of 19 has increased from 13 per cent in 2005-06 to 20 per cent in 2010-11, according to a report published by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills on 7 August.
However, that remains well below the proportion for state school pupils who did not receive free school meals – 38 per cent in 2010-11, up from 33 per cent in 2005-06.
Some parts of the UK have even higher socio-economic gaps in progression to higher education, says the report, titled Widening Participation in Higher Education.
In the Merseyside borough of Wirral, only 16 per cent of FSM pupils progressed to higher education by the age of 19 compared to 46 per cent of all other state school pupils.
In Stockton-on-Tees, in the North East, only 11 per cent of FSM pupils went into higher education compared to 41 per cent of all other students at state schools.
London boroughs tended to have the lowest differential in higher education progression.
Indeed, FSM students in Westminster and Islington had higher progression rates than those not eligible for free meals, with 51 per cent and 37 per cent respectively of FSM students going straight into higher education.
The borough of Knowsley, near St Helens, has the lowest direct state-school progression overall, with just 20 per cent of teenagers going straight into higher education.
It was followed by Bristol (21 per cent), Kingston upon Hull (21 per cent) and Portsmouth (22 per cent), while Harrow had the highest progression rate (59 per cent) alongside the London borough of Redbridge (59 per cent)
Ten out of the 11 highest achieving boroughs were located within London, the report says.
With more than 50 higher education institutions located within the M25, higher levels of higher education participation among London teenagers were to be expected, said Richard Gould, chief executive of Villiers Park Educational Trust, which runs outreach sessions for students not served by a nearby major university, mainly in seaside towns or rural areas.
“London is a relatively easy hit with a large number of young people in a small area for universities to engage with through outreach,” he said.
“More quality outreach is needed outside the capital, perhaps similar to the support offered to our Scholars Programme by the University of Bath, in Swindon, and the University of Cambridge, in Hastings.”
Despite higher numbers of poorer students reaching higher education, other traditional measures of social mobility have not improved, the government report shows.
According to the report, the proportion of state school A-level students reaching the most selective universities – those in the top third of universities when ranked by average Ucas tariff score – fell from 26 per cent in 2008-09 to 24 per cent in 2010-11.
Meanwhile, the proportion of independent school A-level students going to the most selective universities increased marginally from 62 per cent in 2008-09 to 64 per cent in 2010-11.
The report’s finding match similar conclusions reached by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, led by former Labour Cabinet minister Alan Milburn, which said in June 2013 that universities are not doing enough to close the “fair access gap”.
It said Russell Group universities were now less socially diverse than a decade ago, with fewer students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds enrolled within the group’s 24 universities than in 2002-03.