Poverty is the main barrier to A Level achievement

02 March 2009

Our researchers investigated the number of students who achieved 3 grade As at A Level on behalf of the University's Outreach Steering Group. They found that, contrary to some media suggestions, only a very small proportion of students who got these grades had taken less traditional subjects. They also found that the rates of achievement mirrored the socio-economic background of the local authority and that differences in outcomes between them could be stark.

Our research, 'Numbers achieving 3 A grades in specific A Level combinations by school type and LEA' can be found at the bottom of this page.

Below as is an article by Geoff Parks, Director of Admissions for the Cambridge Colleges, and Richard Partington, Senior Tutor of Churchill College and Chair of the Outreach Steering Group, which looks at the context of the results and what they might mean for universities such as Cambridge:

On Thursday the Public Accounts Committee published its report into Widening Participation in Higher Education – sparking much media discussion about whether there has been any real progress in this area since Labour came to power in 1997.

Often access to Higher Education is seen as a panacea for society’s ills and, in this context, new research published today sheds timely and interesting light on some of the factors affecting access to the country’s leading universities. 

The research examines which students achieved three A grades in specified combinations of A-Levels at schools and colleges in England in 2006. It was conducted by Cambridge Assessment at the request of the University of Cambridge’s Outreach Steering Group, which takes a role in coordinating access and widening participation activities for the University and Colleges.

In 2006 223,981 students took A-Levels in England. 24,580 (just under 11%) achieved three or more A grades in subjects excluding General Studies and Critical Thinking. Of these, 8858 (36%) were independently educated. Grammar schools account for a further 4191 (17%) of the AAA students.

Commentators have recently speculated that state-sector students are being advised or allowed to take combinations of A-Level subjects that reduce their chances of winning places at leading universities. But the Cambridge Assessment research shows this to be less of an issue than many have believed. 

In fact, only 1011 of the 24,580 AAA students took A-Level combinations that included more than one subject on the Cambridge list of 20 A-Levels that we believe, taken together, provide a less effective preparation for our very academic courses. Moreover, 224 of these 1011 were students at independent schools. 

In other words, state-school students are not, by and large, being deprived of places at leading universities by their choice of A-Level subjects. The critical obstacle for them is achieving the highest grades: they are unlikely to be able to account for more than two-thirds of the available places on the most competitive for entry courses (despite constituting 86% of the A-Level cohort) unless their exam performance improves. At present they constitute only 64% of those achieving AAA.

For entry to some university subjects, however, the problem is even more serious. The Cambridge Assessment research also looks at the numbers achieving AAA in specific subject combinations. Here, in general, the picture is the same as the headline one: in most cases about 37% of those getting three As attend independent schools. But there are some notable exceptions: only 47% of those getting AAA including a language attend state schools. More surprisingly, nearly 48% of those whose three As include Economics or Business Studies and Maths are independently educated. As Maths is essential for many leading Economics courses (and, indeed, careers), this figure raises concerns about whether budding Economists at state schools and colleges are getting the sort of detailed advice they should be. Here we do have an instance where an absence of appropriate guidance may be depriving good state-sector students of places, even if, overall, guidance is not the major problem.

The Cambridge Assessment research conducts similar analyses for each of 149 local education authorities in England in which A-Levels were taken. This represents a vast amount of information, fascinating and depressing in equal measure. The figures reveal all too starkly how uneven the educational playing field is in England, with a young person’s prospects of achieving top grades apparently depending crucially on where they happen to study.

From our perspective, an interesting performance measure that can be derived from the data is the percentage of students taking A-Levels at maintained-sector schools and colleges in each LEA who get AAA in subject combinations that make them viable Cambridge applicants. By this criterion the highest performing local authority is Reading with 27% and the lowest is Southwark where none of the 111 maintained-sector A-Level students got AAA in an appropriate combination in 2006. One might suppose that such disparity relates primarily to the different ways in which state secondary education is organised in different local authorities. But this isn’t straightforwardly the case. It’s true that the top of a “league table” of local authorities drawn up on the basis of AAA performance is fairly heavily populated by those which retain grammar schools. But there are clear exceptions: Herefordshire (6th at 15.2%), Kirklees (11th at 13.1%) and Cambridgeshire (13th at 12.2%) benefit from high-performing sixth form colleges; Sheffield (17th at 10.9%) has its comprehensives to thank; Medway (97th at 5.6%) retains grammar schools but is much further down the table.

This is because the real reasons for the differences are almost certainly social and economic rather than educational. The proportion of maintained-sector students achieving top A-Level grades is patently closely correlated with the socio-economic demographic of the local authority. Social mobility through education in the United Kingdom will continue to struggle to improve until the pernicious link between deprivation and educational attainment is broken. This Cambridge Assessment study of A-Level achievement provides evidence of the symptoms at age 18; the cure has to lie in much earlier educational interventions in our young people’s lives. 

Related materials