Centre for Analysis of Youth Transitions Research Report
Anna Vignoles, University of Cambridge
Claire Crawford, University of Warwick and Institute for Fiscal Studies
Lindsey Macmillan, Institute of Education
Education is a key driver of social mobility and reducing educational inequality is central to this goal. In this report, we track the performance of high-achieving pupils from poor backgrounds through the education system and compare their trajectories with those of their more advantaged peers. Specifically, we consider the trajectories of poor children who make it to high-status (or ‘elite’) universities (defined as Russell Group institutions or other institutions with similarly high Research Assessment Exercise scores). We also consider the later attainment of poor children who have initially high, average and low attainment at age 7.
We are mindful of the methodological challenge of identifying the trajectories of particular groups of higher-achieving pupils whilst accounting for the statistical problem of regression to the mean (RTM). RTM occurs when initially high-achieving pupils look as if they are falling behind over time simply because their initial test scores were a poor representation of their true ability as they happened to be ‘lucky’ on the day of the test. This work aims to build on previous studies that have tried to address this issue, taking into account potential measurement issues to understand how initially high-achieving children from less advantaged backgrounds progress in the education system and to determine at what point they appear to fall back relative to their more advantaged peers.
We use data on a cohort of children born in 1991–92. The data we use are the linked National Pupil Database (NPD) – Individual Learner Records (ILR) – Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) data. These data enable us to follow children through primary and secondary school, from Key Stage 1 to Key Stage 4, as well as observing their participation and performance at Key Stage 5, and whether they went to university at age 18 or 19, including which university they attended.
Our measures of the socio-economic background of the child are school type, the child’s free school meal (FSM) status during secondary school and an index of socio-economic status (SES) that combines FSM eligibility with a variety of measures of the deprivation of their neighbourhood. We examine differences in attainment on the basis of each of these measures of SES separately.
Our sample includes all children who attended a state primary school and sat Key Stage 1 and 2 tests, including students who went on to study at a private secondary school.
Defining those who are ‘high achieving’ is a key part of our analysis. We use a series of measures at each Key Stage to indicate high achievement. A minority of students are defined as high achieving using our definitions. For example:
- Just under 10% of our sample attend an ‘elite’ university.
- At Key Stage 5, 11% of our sample have at least three A or B grades at A level.
- At Key Stage 4, 37% of our sample achieved five or more A*–C grades in EBacc GCSE subjects.
- At Key Stages 1 and 2, around 18–19% achieve above the expected level in both English/reading and maths (the expected level is level 2 at Key Stage 1 and level 4 at Key Stage 2).
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