More than 20,000 of the most able schoolchildren are shunning the chance to go to university every year, research published today reveals.
Most cite financial worries, according to the study, which was done in 750 schools and colleges by the National Foundation for Education Research. Nearly all of the pupils who turn down the chance are from disadvantaged areas.
"Financial factors are leading to a colossal loss of talent in this country," said a joint statement by the philanthropist Peter Lampl, the chairman of the Sutton Trust, and David Hart, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, who jointly commissioned the research. The Sutton Trust is a charity that was set up by Mr Lampl to encourage youngsters from families without a history of university education to go to leading universities.
The statement said: "These findings are very disturbing, placing the financial factor as by far and away the most important reason for students from underprivileged homes falling by the wayside.
"They will give weight to those who believe that the Government should provide some financial support for those from poor homes staying on at school to 18, and reintroduce means-tested grants."
A staggering 96 per cent of schools and colleges said they had had students with the potential to go to university who had not done so. Two-thirds of the schools said they could recall talented students who had left school at 16 without taking A-levels. One in four colleges said they could remember more than 50 students with potential who did not continue their education.
Pupils in schools in the North (74 per cent) and Midlands (72 per cent) were more likely to shun university than those in the South (62 per cent).
Other reasons cited for refusing to go on to higher education included parental pressure to start earning and a feeling that the student would not "fit in" with the élitist atmosphere at some universities.
The research painted a disturbing picture of the perception of élitism at Oxford and Cambridge held by pupils and teachers. When asked what percentage of students at the two universities came from state schools, 89 per cent of pupils said it was less than 50. One in 11 thought it was less than 10 per cent. The true figure is 55 per cent.
Concern about finance was cited as a "very important" reason for shunning university in 74 per cent of schools and 86 per cent of colleges.
One in five of the schools and one in three of the colleges had failed to send a single student to Oxford or Cambridge over the past five years. The most likely reason for youngsters not applying was an "assumption that they would not be offered a place".
Mr Hart said: "If we can't even get our bright sixth-formers to go to university, the Government is going to struggle to meet its target of getting 50 per cent of youngsters into higher education by the end of the decade."
* A plan to turn 12 leading independent schools into "open access" schools, whereby all pupils are selected on merit, regardless of whether their parents can afford to pay fees, has been put to ministers by the Sutton Trust. The trust already finances a scheme at Belvedere girls' school in Manchester. Schools such as Manchester Grammar School and Dulwich College have said they would be prepared to back the scheme if ministers supported it.Reuse content