One in 10 state school pupils will drop out of education before university despite having once been among the brightest in their class, according to new research.
The study found that 60,000 youngsters a year who had been among the top 20 per cent in tests taken by 11-, 14- and 16-year-olds did not go on to university by the age of 19. But although poorer students were less likely to go to university than their wealthier classmates, this was because they were likely to do less well at school – not because of financial or social barriers at the point of entering higher education.
The research, commissioned by the education charity The Sutton Trust, was based on 600,000 pupils starting secondary school in 1997. It found that young people eligible for free school meals were 19 percentage points less likely to attend university than those not on free school meals.
However, when academic achievements were taken into account, there was virtually no gap between the two groups of students.
Poorer students who reached A-levels were as likely to go on to higher education as their better-off peers. The problem was getting poorer students to stay on to take A-levels.
One student who was forced to leave school before his A-levels was Jamie Lavender, 24. He was one of the brightest pupils at his secondary school and achieved nine good GCSE passes. But then his parents divorced and Mr Lavender was forced to leave school to help support his family with a series of manual and semi-skilled jobs. "I left school at 16 because I just couldn't afford to stay on – I needed to get out to work and start contributing to the family finances," he said.
He worked as a fork-lift driver and in warehouses for five years, deciding eventually to return to education and by working full-time night shifts to fund a higher education access course in business and IT.
"My success at college has changed my life in so many ways," said Mr Lavender, from Bournemouth. He has now just completed the first year of an accounting and finance degree course at Southampton University. "I agree with the findings of this research. There must be many bright students who are unable to fulfil their potential because of their family circumstances."
Dr Anna Vignoles, the director of the Centre for Economics of Education at the Institute of Education and the leader of the research, said: "It has long been argued that there are financial and social barriers at the point of entry into higher education [but] this research shows clearly that the main reason why poorer students do not go to university to the same extent as their wealthier peers is that they have weaker academic achievement."
Just over one in five children (21.1 per cent) on free school meals – a traditional indicator of poverty – obtain the Government's benchmark of five A* to C- grade passes, including maths and English. This compares to 49 per cent of those not on free school meals, according to the latest figures.
The gap between the poorest pupils and the rest of the population also widens as children move through the school system. In 2002, the gap between the two groups in tests for 11-year-olds was 26 percentage points in English and 16 percentage points in maths. When that same cohort took their national curriculum tests at the age of 14, the gap was 27 points in each subject.
Dr Lee Elliot Major, the research director at the Sutton Trust, said: "These findings show that there remain significant numbers of bright young people with potential who do not progress to university. If we are serious about broadening the social mix, it is important not only that the brightest and best get in to our most highly selective institutions, but that more young people from poorer backgrounds go on to higher education, full stop. This means ensuring that those who show promise at school maintain high standards ... and that they are offered practical support to realise their aspirations."