Universities should favour pupils from badly performing schools over those from poor backgrounds if they want to guarantee recruiting the most academically successful students, a groundbreaking study suggests.
Explaining some of the findings of a major new study on the effect of social background on academic attainment, Claire Crawford, associate professor of economics at the University of Warwick, said there is clear evidence to suggest that students from poorly performing schools outshine those from better state schools if they enter university with the same A-level grades.
At the same time, those from poorer backgrounds are more likely to drop out or to gain a lower degree classification than more affluent students, said Dr Crawford, a research fellow at the Institute for Fiscal Studies.
Those results may influence how universities make so-called contextualised offers, in which students from socially disadvantaged backgrounds do not have to gain A-level grades as high as others to gain entry to a course, suggested Dr Crawford.
“Students [from poorly performing schools] with the same attainment outperform those from the best schools,” she told Times Higher Education.
“If universities want to be careful about admitting students in this way, then school characteristics is the way to go,” Dr Crawford added.
Better schools are likely to push their students harder to help them “overachieve” at A level, whereas pupils from worse schools would gain similar results only if they had a far higher academic potential, Dr Crawford speculated – although universities may still want to target lower-income students as a part of their university access plans, she added.
Her analysis is part of a long-awaited new book on social mobility and higher education, titled Family Background and University Success, written with UCL Institute of Education economists John Micklewright and Lorraine Dearden and University of Cambridge educationalist Anna Vignoles, which was launched at a Nuffield Foundation event in London on 5 December.
The book is regarded as one of the most comprehensive analyses yet of why young people from poorer families are less likely to go to university, achieve lower grades and obtain worse employment outcomes than peers from richer families.
Speaking at the event, Dr Crawford said universities had to do more to help poorer students and “ensure higher education is as big a generator of social mobility as we would like it to be”.
Differences in dropout rates and degree attainment are massive, according to her research.
For instance, around 75 per cent of the top few percentiles of students by family income gain a first or 2:1, but this declines to about 40 per cent for the bottom few percentiles, she explained.
“Relatively few students from low socio-economic backgrounds are getting into university, but when they do, these gaps [in outcomes] emerge when they enter the university system,” Dr Crawford said.
“This is happening at institutions with the highest research quality, even when students look the same on paper [as those from high-income groups],” said Dr Crawford.