Seventeen per cent of state school pupils eligible for free school meals went into higher education by the age of 19 in 2008-09 – compared to 13 per cent in 2005-06, according to the statistics released by the Department for Business, Industry and Skills.
The proportion of state school pupils not claiming free meals also rose from 33 per cent to 35 per cent in the same period, the report says.
But the performance of deprived teenagers differed widely across the UK.
Forty-five per cent of teenagers eligible for free school meals in Westminster and 44 per cent in Kensington and Chelsea progressed to a higher education institution in 2008-09, while only 4 per cent of North Tyneside students continued in post-18 education.
In Salford, Doncaster, Darlington and Nottinghamshire the figure was 8 per cent.
Graeme Atherton, director of AccessHE, a widening participation programme funded by London universities, said the cluster of higher education institutions in the capital helped to explain the regional variations.
“We have about 20 or so universities here in London, but communities in the North are not as well served by institutions,” he said.
“It means there is a lot of pressure on those northern universities to promote widening participation – it’s a different challenge to us
“You also have lots of families in places like Westminster who claiming free school meals who are affluent in other ways.
“Free school meal pupils is the most administratively easy way to measure access because the schools have the information, and it seems like it is the government’s preferred indicator, but there are problems with it.
“For instance, not all young people able to claim it take advantage and it focuses on a small group. But it does reveal the continuing challenge of widening access.”
The data also show the proportion of state school pupils entering the most selective universities failed to increase – with private school pupils more than twice as likely to enter top institutions.
Twenty-six per cent of state sixth-form pupils went to the most selective universities by the age 19 in 2008-09 – the same proportion as in 2006-07.
Meanwhile, 62 per cent of independent school pupils secured places at the most highly ranked universities in 2008-09 – slightly down on the 63 per cent who did so in 2006-07.
“The state school measure is fairly blunt measure. Some schools are highly selective and have a very strong intake,” Dr Atherton added.
Overall, higher education participation rates for A level or equivalent qualification students stood at 69 per cent for state school pupils and 82 per cent for independent schools in 2008-09 – compared to 72 per cent and 85 per cent respectively for 2006-07.
About 14 per cent of all pupils are able to claim free school meals, with families on income support or earning less than £16,190 eligible to claim the benefit.