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17 March 2015

Tristram Hunt criticises Tories over fresh claims that poorer students are more likely to fall behind

A new study from the Sutton Trust has found that poorer students are considerably less likely to study the A-levels that are required to help them into leading universities.

By Ashley Cowburn

Intelligent students from disadvantaged backgrounds are almost half as likely than their advantaged peers to take “facilitating” A-level subjects and get places at the UK’s top universities, according to new research by an educational charity.

The report by the Sutton Trust and Oxford University, Subject to Background, analysed data from more than 3,000 young people who have been tracked since the age of three. It found that among youngsters from the poorest backgrounds, (who were identified as able from their test scores in year six) just 35 per cent went on to get three A-Levels in any subjects compared with 60 per cent of their bright advantaged peers.

And only 33 per cent of bright but disadvantaged students decided to opt for “facilitating” (English, Maths, humanities, sciences, modern languages) A-Level subjects. The Russell Group – which represents 24 of the UK’s leading universities – publishes guidance for students on how Russell Group universities view particular subjects at advanced level.  Many of the top universities have a list of subjects they consider to be appropriate for entrance. 

Speaking to the New Statesman about the report, Tristram Hunt, the shadow education secretary, said that the coalition has no plans to support schools in nurturing their most able pupils. Hunt added that international research shows that we perform badly in helping talented state school pupils from non-privileged backgrounds. “That’s why Labour will establish a Gifted and Talented Fund to help equip schools with the most effective strategies for stretching these pupils.

“The Tory plan is letting down the next generation and failing working families because it doesn’t put them first. Britain only succeeds when working families succeed.”

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But the report has put forward a number of conclusions that could significantly improve poorer students’ chances, such as going on trips to museums and reading for pleasure. Getting into the habit of daily homework could make a student nine times as likely to get three A-Levels.

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Sir Peter Lampl, chairman of the Sutton Trust, said: “The fact that bright disadvantaged students fall so far behind when they reach their A-levels shows that government and schools urgently need to do more to support able students from less advantaged homes. We must ensure that access to the best schools and opportunities for academic enrichment outside school are available to all students.”  

Professor Pam Sammons, co-author of the report, said: “There is no silver bullet that alone came make a difference but a combination of good schools and pre-schools, the right home learning environment and supportive teachers ready to monitor progress and provide good feedback can all ensure that bright but disadvantaged students get the chance of a good university education. There are important lessons here for teachers and policymakers seeking to reduce the equity gap in attainment.”