Helping raise the attainment and aspirations of pupils before they sit their GCSEs will have a greater effect on their likelihood of going to university than intervening later in their schooling, research suggests.
Academics at the London School of Economics and the Institute of Education have studied the higher education participation rates for each UK postcode and how GCSE attainment and social class affected the likelihood of pupils to continue their studies.
The postcode analysis found that the likelihood of young people from middle-income and affluent homes entering higher education increased more rapidly than their counterparts from poor homes between 1994-95 and 2001-02.
The gap widened despite the introduction of the upfront £1,125 tuition fee in 1998, suggesting that the cost of university study did not deter students from middle-income and affluent homes.
The academics also found that a pupil's background influenced performance in GCSE exams. But those pupils from low-income households who achieved the same GCSE grades in maths and English as their counterparts from more affluent homes were equally likely to go on to university.
Anna Vignoles, one of the research authors, said that early intervention in schooling to raise aspirations and attainment before GCSE was a key factor in widening participation after A level.
"It may be to do with the quality of schooling or young people from poor backgrounds looking forwards at the age of 14 and saying, 'I can't afford to go to university, so there's no point in trying to do well at GCSE and A level'," Dr Vignoles said. "So if there is early intervention, there may be a bigger impact on HE participation."
Ironically, under the fees system introduced in 1998, the poorest students - whose family income was less than £20,970 a year - were exempt from the charge.
John Rushforth, director for widening participation for the Higher Education Funding Council for England, stressed that universities alone could not improve access across the social classes. "To bring about the sort of changes we are trying to bring about, you need to start much earlier on in the schools - and that takes a long time to feed through," Mr Rushforth said.
BULWELL, NG6: EDUCATION AN 'IRRELEVANCE'
Education has been an "irrelevance" for generations living in the Bulwell area of Nottingham who made their living in the old mining and textile industries or in metal-bashing jobs in a bicycle factory to the north of Nottingham.
The study by the Institute of Education and the London School of Economics suggests that in 1994-95 only one in 20 young people in Bulwell went on to higher education.
While the participation rate rose in the late 1990s, by 2001-02 still only one in ten people entered university.
Although not the poorest area, the research ranked Bulwell and the NG6 postcode as having a mean household income of £15,000 a year.
The "chronic under-attainment" and lack of educational aspirations of this working-class community has outlived the decline of the traditional industries, according to Graham Allen, Labour MP for Nottingham North, whose constituency includes the NG6 postcode.
What remains is a former council estate with a dearth of community and leisure facilities, where unemployment is twice the national average.
According to the 2001 Census, 37 per cent of the jobless were long-term unemployed and 47 per cent of people in Bulwell had no qualifications at all.
Almost half of households had no car, far higher than the one in every four homes nationally.
Mr Allen said the key question was how to "crack the traditional family view of education and create a culture of aspirations". Further education should be brought closer to the area's secondary schools to address the high dropout rate at the age of 16, he said.
"I'm not surprised by the findings, but they do underline that we are right to have identified FE as our priority," he said.
"Most people here will not make the leap from nothing to university. What they can do is be inspired - and properly funded - to go on to further education."
WIGSTON, LE18: 'SCHOOLS PUSH THE KIDS INTO HE'
Parents who got by with few qualifications are seeing more of their children enter university as the Middle England market town of Wigston takes advantage of the expansion of higher education.
The study by the Institute of Education and the London School of Economics reveals that the odds of a young person from Wigston going to university increased from one in ten in 1994-95 to one in three by 2001-02.
The research ranked the Wigston LE18 postcode area, which is on the outskirts of Leicester, as being around the mean national household income of Pounds 21,890.
According to Garth Boulter, district and county councillor for the South Wigston area, it is a "traditional shire county town" with leafy streets of three-bedroom semi-detached houses.
Wigston is also caught between inner-city Leicester and the more affluent market towns and villages in rural Leicestershire.
The traditional industries of the area - shoe-making, hosiery and engineering - are in decline, having provided generations with skilled jobs.
"It was built up around the railways, and there used to be a lot of manual work, people getting by through hard graft," Mr Boulter said.
Nevertheless, employment remains higher than the national average, even though 38 per cent of the population have no qualifications.
Only 8 per cent of the population have degrees, according to the 2001 Census, lower than the 19 per cent national average.
But there is higher than average home ownership, with almost half living in a semi.
Mr Boulter said: "The schools are always pushing kids to go into higher education, and there doesn't seem to be a lack of opportunities. The lack of opportunities comes when they have left university and still can't find the right job after 12 months."