The most disadvantaged school pupils in England face increasing equality gaps in accessing higher education, according to new figures.

The Department for Education’s (DfE) latest figures show the gap in progression rates between disadvantaged students who are eligible for Free School Meals (FSM) and their more advantaged peers has increased to 18.8 percentage points, the highest gap since 2006-07.

The 2018-19 DfE widening participation report also reveals the proportion of FSM-eligible white males entering higher education has dropped for the first time in seven years, with just 12.7 per cent progressing to higher education by age 19, compared to 35.6 per cent of non-FSM white males.

Eliza Kozman, Deputy Director (Research) at TASO, said the figures reflect the ongoing need to prioritise widening participation in higher education, and develop more effective approaches to eliminating equality gaps.

“While much effort has been made in recent years to improve access to higher education for disadvantaged and underrepresented students, these new figures act as a reminder that we must not become complacent.

The playing field is still far from level for all young people who wish to pursue higher education, succeed in their studies and progress to relevant employment. TASO’s work to develop more evidence on the best approaches to widening participation will be vital in helping close these persistent equality gaps.”

The DfE report captures annual statistics on young peoples’ participation in higher education by student characteristics, including eligibility for free school meals, gender, ethnicity, special educational need status and first language.

TASO has several upcoming research projects on the effectiveness of different approaches to widening participation in higher education, including:

The research projects follow a review of the current evidence base by the Education Policy Institute (EPI) for TASO, which found a lack of causal evidence linking widening participation programmes to improvements in enrolment rates.

For more information on the current evidence base for widening participation in higher education: