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The influence of socio-economic status on aspirations to enter
higher education

School pupils' awareness, understanding and expectations of higher education

John Knowles
Access to HE Project, Humberside University campus
Inglemire Avenue, Kingston upon Hull

Paper presented at the British Educational Research Association Annual Conference
(September 11-14 1997: University of York)


The Access to Higher Education Project at Humberside University campus is founded on five assertions:

  1. most current university students did not decide to enter HE, only which course and which university;
  2. access to HE is more dependant on disposable family income than any other single factor;
  3. there are many 18 year olds outside the HE culture who are at least as able as the 33% within;
  4. expansion of HE has admitted an increased proportion of poorly qualified middle class students, rather than under qualified working class students;
  5. children from manual and un-skilled backgrounds are not genetically less intelligent than children from professional backgrounds.

However sympathetic admissions processes may be to "non-traditional" students, they can only react to those that apply. For students whose families are outside the HE culture, self-selection is one of the major hurdles. The "Access to HE Project" seeks to reach students with potential, but who would not normally consider HE as a possibility.

Six secondary schools in Kingston upon Hull are involved in the "Access Project" (which is supported by The Paul Hamlyn Foundation). They are all 11 to 16 schools, serving disadvantaged communities, with a range of indicators to demonstrate this. Although nominally comprehensive, they all have intakes which are significantly skewed towards the lower end of the ability range. Eligibility for free school meals ranges from 30% to 60% (two to four times the average for England), with a similar range of percentages on the register of special needs. Progression into post-16 education is between 30% and 50%, against a national average of over 70%. In England the pass rate for five or more GCSEs at grades A* to C was 44.5% in 1996; these schools achieved between 8% and 18%.


Research by Roberts and Higgins (1981) found that 64% of their sample of undergraduates had firmly decided to apply to HE before age 16, the average age being 15.2. Although Roberts and Higgins estimated that only some 5% of c.40 year-olds were graduates themselves, 39% of the sample had a graduate parent (rising to 47% in the pre '92 Universities). Only 47% came from major towns and cities, where 77% of the population lived.

Both Egerton and Halsey (1993) and HEFCE (1996) found that there was still considerable social class inequality in access to HE, but that, overall, representation by gender was virtually level and that most ethnic minority groups were proportionately well represented. Egerton & Halsey argued that inequity for some ethnic groups may be due to their low socio economic status rather than to their ethnicity.

Further research by HEFCE (1997), examining access by affluence of neighbourhood type, found that participation ranged from over 70% to under 10%, within an overall age participation rate of 33%.

Foskett & Hesketh (1995, 1996) found that knowledge of HE amongst Y8 and Y10 pupils in Hampshire bore a strong positive correlation to previous family experience of HE, and that aspirations towards HE were strongest amongst middle class families and those with prior contact with HE.

The sample school

All six schools involved in the Access Project have been inspected by OFSTED, and four now come under Special Measures. In order to minimise disruption, one of the other two schools was chosen to take part in the pilot survey.

Sir Henry Cooper School opened as a 13-18 comprehensive in 1969. It serves a large 1960's overspill, dormitory, estate with a mix of high rise, terrace and maisonette dwellings, mostly (76%) council owned. It is a concrete slab system built, campus style school, with separate pastoral blocks grouped around larger teaching blocks. In 1988 it became a neighbourhood 11-16 comprehensive, with pupils transferring to FE or sixth form colleges for post-compulsory education. Its intake is depleted as a number of pupils transfer from local primaries to 11-18 schools in the neighbouring East Riding of Yorkshire.

The school's OFSTED report (January 96), states that:

"Most of the pupils … live in … an area of acute social deprivation. The school's catchment area has seen rising unemployment over a number of years. In 1991, over half the … houses in the ward in which the school is located had no residents in employment. Levels of social deprivation are reflected in the uptake of free school meals which are taken by 60% of pupils which is over three times the national … average.

… almost 4% of pupils have statements of special educational needs … a total of 334 (40%) are currently on the school register of pupils with special educational needs. Despite being nominally comprehensive, the intake of the school is not only socially un-representative but is also skewed well below the national norms in all categories of ability …" 1

Table 1    Census indicators for the school's community<sup>2</sup>

Table 2 gives statistics for the school and the national averages, drawn from DfEE figures and the OFSTED report.

 Table 2 gives statistics for the school and the national averages, drawn from DfEE figures and the OFSTED report

Pupils in Year 9 - those who have just finished Key Stage 3, and progress onto GCSE courses next year, were surveyed by questionnaire

The historical context

At the turn of the century, the age participation rate for 18 year-olds was less than 1%. In 1938 it was just under 2% and by 1948 it was almost 4%. Massive expansion of the numbers participating in post-compulsory education in the following 50 years has changed the character and the social significance of HE.

The 1944 Education Act introduced universal secondary education. This, of course, led to an increase in the numbers attaining matriculation standards. Higher education, in contrast, remained both voluntary and competitive, so that only a minority gained places. As this minority tended to come from schools which were also selective, the pool of University applicants was necessarily limited.

So, at the beginning of the 1950s, Universities were seen to be the exclusive domain of an academic elite. That this elite was almost exclusively white, male, and from non-manual backgrounds went (almost) without question - it was only in 1948 that Cambridge had admitted women as full members of the University6.

Clearly the socially exclusive nature of this group meant that it did not represent the whole pool of ability, and there remained considerable scope for expansion. Figure 1 shows the gathering pace of this growth over a forty year period.

The provision of grants and the payment of fees following the Anderson Committee's 1960 report meant that cost became much less of an obstacle to entry. (Would that one could make the same statement about 1997.) In 1963 the Robbins Report established the principle that University education should be "available to all those with the ability and qualifications to benefit …".7.

Figure 1 University entrants (in thousands)1948-19885

 Figure 2    HE entrants (in thousands) 1990 - 19959

Under the selective, binary secondary system those working class pupils who passed their 11 plus examination, gaining entry to the local grammar school, could look forward to University entry. (A route recorded in Jackson & Marsden’s account of Huddersfield in the 1950s8) Those consigned to the "secondary modern" schools were effectively denied access. The reorganisation of secondary education into a mass comprehensive system moved selection from age 11 to ages 16 and 18. Many more pupils now had the opportunity to matriculate, to acquire the "qualifications to benefit".

By 1988 there were almost four times as many entrants as there had been in 1948, and differentiation by gender was gradually being reduced (Figure 1). This growth in full-time students underestimates the total increase in the sector, because there had also been massive expansion in the numbers of part-time students (largely in the polytechnics, the colleges of HE, and the Open University).

Today gender inequality in admissions is still very evident within particular subject areas, but overall there are now roughly equal numbers of men and women in HE. Class inequalities have been more persistent, and more difficult to analyse. Expansion has led to an absolute increase in the numbers entering HE from manual and unskilled backgrounds (particularly amongst mature and part-time entrants, who are not the main concern of this paper), but not to a proportionate increase.

The percentages in Table 3 are calculated for applicants aged 18.00 to 18.11 on 30 September - the standard entrant. The first column (Percentage of Applications) shows each social class as a percentage of the total UCAS applications; the second (Percentage of Admissions) shows each class as a percentage of the total degree and HND admissions. The next column (Percentage Admitted) shows the percentage of candidates from each class who were accepted for degree or HND study. The percentage of the population in each class from the 1991 census is given as a comparison.

Table 3 Social class of home applicants to HE, 1995 entry10

Clearly where the percentage of admissions is larger than the percentage of applications, that class is at an advantage; equally, where the percentage admitted is below the percentage admitted for all applications, that class is at a disadvantage.

There are generalised differences in subject choice (and admissions) from the different groups. The four most popular areas of study (business and administration, social studies, education and engineering) are common to all groups though in Class I, medicine and dentistry are preferred to education. Admissions also show very specific differences; in medicine and dentistry, for example, 53% of the 3,890 applicants from Class I were accepted, but only 34% of the 665 from Classes IV and V together11.

The Findings

The gender split of the responses was almost equal, with 51% female respondents. Occupational background and aspirations were analysed using the Registrar General's scale, to equate with UCAS statistics. In some analyses, SEG I and SEG II are linked as "professional", SEG IIIN and SEG IIIM as "skilled", and SEG IV and SEG V as "semi/unskilled". Where previous occupations are given, unemployed backgrounds are also allocated to the RG scale. Descriptions of occupations were very clear, so almost all the "Not Classified" cases refer to uniformed forces.

Twenty-nine per cent of pupils had no parent in work (13% were long term unemployed), 44% were from semi-skilled or unskilled backgrounds, 37% from skilled backgrounds and only 2% professionals. 77% of the pupils expressed career intentions, and Figure 3 compares their aspirations with their backgrounds.

Clearly those pupils with stated career aims aspire to higher status occupations than their parents. A total of 74% aspired to levels above their family backgrounds, and 25% placed their aims at the same level as their parents. In particular, only 2% of the pupils had parents who had been through HE, but 14% saw HE as a route to their intended career. (This is 56% of the pupils who aspire to enter HE.) However, although 37% claimed some contact with people who had been to "university", only 25% thought they were likely to become university students themselves.

Figure 4 shows the gender differences within these career and HE aspirations, boys being more likely to state their aims, but girls more likely to have higher aspirations. Calculating only for pupils who stated a career intention and have a parent in work, 85% of girls aim higher than their parents as opposed to 56% of boys.

Of those pupils who had contact with someone who had been a student, 35% thought they were likely to enter HE, although for most of these the contact was outside the immediate family. (Only 9% had recent contact through a brother or sister.) Of those who had no contact, just 20% thought they were likely to enter HE. (Figure 5) Prior contact with HE seems to exert a considerable "push" towards entry.

 Figure 3    Occupational background and aspirations

 Figure 4    Gender differences in career aspirations

 Figure 5    Effect of contact on likelihood of entry

 Figure 6    Likelihood of entry in contact and non-contact

Classifying the pupils into those with contact with HE (38%) and those without (62%), roughly equal proportions (52% and 48% respectively) of those who though themselves likely to enter HE came from each group, but a considerable proportion (86%) of those who saw themselves as unlikely to enter came from the non-contact group. (Figure 6) There would appear to be little "push" without contact.

Grouping the pupils' backgrounds into professional, skilled, and semi/unskilled, shows that pupils' contacts with, and aspirations towards HE decline with the status of family occupational background (Figure 7). This is partially compensated for by the effect of their occupational aspirations, with pupils who aspire to professional status occupations much more likely to aspire to enter HE (Figure 8). Figure 8 also shows a strong positive correlation between HE and aspirations towards professional status, and a strong negative correlation between HE and semi-skilled employment. This would seem to indicate that the pupils hold a strongly instrumental approach to education, seeing it as a route to better employment prospects.

Figure 9 shows the extent of pupils' awareness of the qualifications available in higher education. There were very small differences between those with and those without contact with HE, except that (surprisingly) a much higher proportion of those without contact were aware that degrees were available (72% to 51%). The limited awareness of HNDs in particular may be a result of the school being 11-16, and so lacking sixth form information. Knowledge of HNDs was evenly distributed between those with contact and those without, as was awareness that both HNDs and degrees were available.

Figure 10 shows pupils' awareness of the qualifications required to gain entry to HE. "A" levels are still seen as the principal route. The relatively small numbers giving GNVQ as a route into HE is surprising here, as the school has a strong involvement with GNVQ courses, originally in partnership with the local FE college, but increasingly in-house.

These two figures together indicate a limited understanding and awareness of HE amongst these pupils. There are probably a number of factors involved here, which could include the nature of an 11 to 16 school, expectations of teachers, lack of knowledge about HE in the community, and the timing of specialist careers advice. The survey was carried out just

 Figure 7    Effect of family occupational background

 Figure 8    Effect of pupils' occupational aspirations

after pupils had made their option choices, so it is a cause for considerable concern that there is not clearer knowledge about progression at this stage.

Figure 11 charts the people who influence the pupils' thinking about future careers. Pupils were asked to nominate three from a list of six people who they discussed their career plans with, who gave them the most advice, and who were the strongest influences on their thinking. Clearly parents play the major role, with friends and teachers. Year 9 pupils have limited contact with specialist careers advisors, so at this stage they have only a minor role.

In view of the limited experience of higher education within the pupils' community, it is hardly surprising that so few consider it as part of a career pathway. This is reinforced, since the bulk of their contacts with HE were through relatives beyond the immediate family but these relatives play a fairly minor role in careers thinking.

 Figure 9    Pupils' awareness of the qualifications available
in HE

 Figure 10    Pupils' awareness of HE entry qualifications

 Figure 11    Influences on pupils' career planning

The Access to HE Project

Each secondary school in the Project selects some 10% of pupils in Year 9, Y10 and Y11. These are pupils that the school believes have the potential to benefit from HE, but who would not see that as a pathway for themselves.

Before their visits they fill in anonymous questionnaires about their perceptions of university. Typical comments about students include:-

"They're all dead posh"

"They dress weird - like hippies"

"They're all real clever and boring".

Comments about university include:-

"It'll be just the same as school, only bigger"

"There's nothing to do except read books"

"Nobody does any work, they just stop in the pub all day"

"I know what it's like - real boring".

The first step is to get the pupils into higher education for "Taster Days". Groups of pupils spend a day in a local university, and sample life as a student. We give them academic work, nothing patronising, but the normal sort of work first year undergraduates do. Examples include Linguistics (a seminar on "Gender and Argument Style"), Media Studies (a day making a documentary about the university), Business Administration (a role play exercise in corporate decision making), and English Literature (a workshop on the Witches in Macbeth). The Students' Union organises volunteers take them to lunch, and show them around Halls of Residence, and social and leisure facilities. They get to see that HE students do not need two heads to carry their brains around in, that HE staff are (relatively) humane, and that university is not the same as school. At the end of each day's visit they fill in review sheets. The following are quotes from these anonymous responses:-

"It was interesting, and set my mind at rest about university - I thought you needed to be really clever."

"The most useful thing was learning that it's totally different to school."

"It was totally different to what I expected .... I can't wait to get there!"

"I enjoyed meeting the students and seeing they are normal people."

"I thought university would be just like school - I've learnt a lot today."

"I came on the visit because it was a day off school, but it's really good here. I think I would like to go to university now."

We also hold residential events, so they get away from home, live the communal (if not monastic) life of students, and spend time with ex-pupils of their schools who are now in, or about to enter, HE. Following these events pupils have written:-

"Being treated as an adult, having your own room was good. The visit should have been longer (about a week long!) - and invite us all back, because it's good."

"It was a useful experience for me because I found out what it is like to live as a student, and to realise how big university is."

"I think the rooms are really nice, because you can be by yourself to concentrate, but you can also go to each other's rooms."

"More people should have the opportunity to come."

The standard way of gaining entry to HE in Britain is the equivalent of running a marathon race which has a high-jump at the end of it. The only part of all this effort that counts is the height at which the candidate clears the bar - the grades awarded in the terminal "A" level examinations - and for the academic careers of many students the word "terminal" is very appropriate.

At Humberside we are trying to establish an alternative model for these students; one which is closer to orienteering. In orienteering the competitors know that there are a number of targets which have to be visited, and they collect the evidence for having reached these targets as they go. When they reach the finishing line they present that evidence, and claim their credit for having visited each goal. The students in the Access to HE Project are given a conditional offer of a place at the University as they first begin to study for public examinations at age 14. This offer specifies the learning goals and the other achievements we expect them to reach by the time they seek entry.

Accreditation of Prior Experience & Learning (APEL) is well established for mature students; the Conditional Offer is another form of APEL, but aimed at pre-mature students, who have less experience. What it does is to identify for them the experiences which will be valuable, and offers a format for cumulative recording of experience and achievement. This way we allocate some credit to the years of effort and achievement, instead of loading it all into the half a dozen days of unpleasantness in May and June in which they sit their examinations.

We still expect them to achieve academically in school and tertiary education (and we believe that setting these targets will lead to an inevitable improvement in their performance), but we allow them to add credit to their examination scores. This is important, we are not saying they can deduct from the standard offer. This might be regarded as merely a semantic difference, but we are not lowering the bar.

In 1992-93 we ran a small scale pilot, with 24 pupils, each of whom had two HE visits, and used a "Compact" style agreement. Eight of these pupils are now beginning their third year in HE, four locally and four widely spread. One has just been elevated from B.Sc. to M.Chem.

There were 100 pupils in the Project's 1996 cohort. Seventy-two of these have continued their education beyond 16, with 59 on courses which represent progression from GCSE (BTEC National, GCE "A" level, or GNVQ Advanced), and thirteen on courses equivalent to GCSE (BTEC 1st, GNVQ Intermediate, NVQ2, etc.).

One hundred Y11 pupils from these schools hold an Early Conditional Offer of a place in the University. Seminar and tutorial sessions have been held in each school to progress work on these, and to agree goals and targets for each pupil.

Indicators from these pupils are that some 80% have made firm applications to post 16 colleges. They will be followed up in October to see if they have enrolled, and on what courses.

The project has begun to work with primary schools in the pyramids of the six project schools. This is felt to be very beneficial, both for the pupils and the schools, but more particularly for the parents.

The final words of this section go to two parents of pupils involved in the Project:

"I only wish someone had done things like this for me when I was at school."

"I'd like to thank everyone involved for taking an interest in our kids."


  1. OFSTED, 1996
  2. 1991 Census
  3. DfEE, 1996a
  4. DfEE, 1996b
  5. Source: Annual Abstracts of Statistics
  6. McWilliams-Tulbers, 1975, cited in Blackburn & Jarman, 1993
  7. Robbins, 1963
  8. Jackson & Marsden, 1962
  9. Source: UCCA, PCAS & UCAS Statistics
  10. Source: UCAS Statistics, 1995, 1991 Population Census
  11. UCAS Statistics, 1995


Blackburn, R. & Jarman, J. (1993), 'Changing Inequalities in Access to British Universities', Oxford Review of Education, Vol 19, No 2, pp. 197-215

Central Statistical Office, (1996) Social Trends 26, London

DfEE, (1996a). School Performance Tables 1995


DfEE, (1996b). Education Facts & Figures, England 1996 (

Egerton, M. & Halsey, A.H. (1993), 'Trends by Social Class & Gender in Access to HE in Britain', Oxford Review of Education, Vol 19, No 2, pp. 183-194

Foskett, N. & Hesketh, A. (1995), Higher Education Awareness amongst Y10 Pupils in Hampshire, CREM, Southampton

Foskett, N. & Hesketh, A. (1996), Higher Education Awareness amongst Y8 Pupils in Hampshire, CREM, Southampton

HEFCE, (1996) Widening Access to Higher Education, Bristol

HEFCE, (1997) The Influence of Neighbourhood Type on Participation in Higher Education, Interim Report, Bristol

Jackson, B. & Marsden, D. (1962), Education & the Working Class, Penguin, Harmondsworth

Metcalf, H. (1997), Class & Higher Education: the Participation of Young People from Lower Social Classes, CIHE, London

OFSTED, (1996) Inspection of Sir Henry Cooper School, HMSO, London

PCAS, (1993) PCAS Time Series of Statistics, Cheltenham

Robbins, Lord, (1993) Higher Education: Report of the Committee appointed by the Prime Minister under the Chairmanship of Lord Robbins, 1961-1963, London

Roberts, D. & Higgins, T. (1992) Higher Education, the Student Experience, HEIST, Leeds

Robertson, D. & Hillman, J. (1997) 'Widening Participation in Higher Education for Students from Lower Socio-economic Groups and Students with Disabilities', Report 6 of the National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education (

UCAS, (1995) Statistical Supplement to the 1995 Annual Report, Cheltenham

UCCA, (1992) Statistical Supplement to the 1992 Annual Report, Cheltenham

This document was added to the Education-line database 21 October 1997