• Polling shows 40 per cent of children on low incomes do not have a quiet place to study
  • Better-off families three times as likely to use private tutors during school shut-down
  • Universities urged to take social background of students into account in deciding places

The Department for Opportunities, the campaign arm of the Social Mobility Foundation (SMF), has published a YouGov poll showing 40 per cent of children from low income households – those with incomes of less than £20,000 a year – do not have a quiet room in which they can study during the Coronavirus shut down. This compares to just 19 per cent among children in households with income of more than £70,000 a year.

Rt Hon. Alan Milburn, Chair of the SMF, said these inequities could impact how students are graded at GCSE and A Level.  He urged universities to help offset the disadvantages that lower income students face by placing greater emphasis on contextual admission procedures in deciding who would get a university place.

The same survey shows that 20 per cent of better-off households are either already using private tutors or are likely to do so during the school shut down, compared to just 7 per cent of low income households.

The disadvantages become even more apparent when asked how much each household was willing to pay for private tutors, with a quarter (24%) of those who are considering private tuition even willing to spend upwards of £100 a week.

Classrooms across the UK closed on Friday 20th March and parents have since been grappling with home-schooling their children. Although the Government announced last week that exams have been cancelled and teachers will instead estimate student grades based on mock exams and coursework, GCSE and A-Level results are likely to reflect educational advantages at home.

ONS data shows that 10 per cent of UK households – mainly the poorest – do not have access to the internet.

The Social Mobility Foundation works with thousands of disadvantaged young people every year helping them overcome the barriers they face to access highly selective universities and careers in the professions.

Universities have the ability to make contextual offers to students – offering a place to students with lower grades in recognition of their personal circumstances – however the practice is not widespread. Many of the Universities who do make contextual offers do not advertise the fact widely, meaning students from disadvantaged backgrounds are unaware that they may stand a chance of a place they may consider out of reach.

Rt Hon. Alan Milburn, Chair of the Social Mobility Foundation said:

“Covid-19 is facing our country with an unprecedented challenge. The Government is rightly focused on minimising the number of people impacted by the pandemic and its decision to close schools and scrap exams is the right one. 

“Its always been the case that young people do not compete on a level playing field. This new data makes clear that missing months of schooling will hit children from disadvantaged backgrounds, who do not have access to a quiet space to study or private tutors, harder than others.

“The risk is that too many low income students, having to study in cramped noisy conditions, will gain lower grades than they might otherwise have done.

“Universities can help offset these disadvantages by taking these inequities into account and making contextual offers the norm as they move to admitting new students later this year.”

The Department for Opportunities will be contacting all UK universities with the new data and campaigning for them to enhance their contextual offer procedures ahead of admissions later this year.

Teachers and researchers have long been aware of the impact of the “summer slide” – where the prolonged summer break each year has a cumulative effect on educational outcomes. The six-week summer break sees children from low incomes fall behind on key measures and is seen as a significant contributor toward the attainment gap between the richest and poorest children.

With children now potentially out of school for five months, instead of the usual six-week summer break, the impact on children from lower-income backgrounds could be even higher.

Today’s polling is backed up by a survey of 2,215 Year 12/S5 and Year 13/S6 young people who are taking part in programmes ran by the Social Mobility Foundation where 28 per cent indicate they do not have access to a quiet place to study and 52 per cent of Year 13/S6 students express anxiety about the transition from school to university.

Sarah Atkinson, CEO of the Social Mobility Foundation said:

“We know schools are doing all they can to support young people with online coursework but it is clear from these figures that many young people will not be able to access quiet places to study.

“We are asking universities to expand or introduce contextual offers – recognising that not all young people enjoy the opportunities open to others – private or grammar school education, personal tutors, a stable home life. As students across the UK are expected to study at home, universities must recognise that studying in cramped conditions and without the support of university educated parents or tutors will have a detrimental impact on the grades of disadvantaged students. 

“Our survey of young people shows 52 per cent are worried about the impact a five-month gap between school and starting university will have on their ability to adapt to university life. Its already tough for kids from disadvantaged backgrounds with no family history of going to university to cope with the shift and this is reflected in retention rates.

“With a potential five-month gap from school, losing the focus of exams and with many having to provide unpaid childcare to younger siblings – its clear that universities will have to work harder than ever to ensure students from disadvantaged backgrounds are supported to settle and stay in university.

“The Social Mobility Foundation works with around 2,000 disadvantaged young people every year. We know first-hand the challenging home life that many young people face. Despite this, through our support and access mentors and work experience, they go on to the best Universities in the UK and move into professional jobs.”

*The YouGov poll was undertaken between 19th – 23rd March 2020, with a total sample size was 1,139 parents with school age children. The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all GB adults (aged 18+).

Full results can be viewed here

*Survey of Social Mobility Foundation participants took place between 24th March and 2nd April 2020 with 2215 young people taking part.