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Current measurement of disadvantage could discriminate against BAME students and those with young mothers

COMMON markers used to assess levels of childhood disadvantage could discriminate against people from black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds or with young mothers, new research revealed today.

Many measures which use “proxies” based on people’s local areas are not effective at identifying low-income students, according to the Sutton Trust.

Of the nine indicators examined in the research, the most effective available is the number of years a child has been eligible for free school meals. 

But universities do not have access to verified data on free school meals and rely on students to self-report their eligibility.

Because of this, universities commonly use Polar (Participation of Local Areas) data in their admissions processes which looks at a young person’s local area and assigns them into one of five groups, depending on the proportion of young people in their area that go on to university.

Almost half of children classified as disadvantaged by Polar are not from a low-income background.

A focus on Polar fails to spot many BAME students, Londoners, those with young mothers and people who rent, the report warned.

Sutton Trust founder and Education Endowment Foundation chairman Peter Lampl said: “In order to widen access fairly and effectively, universities need to know which students would benefit most from outreach programmes and contextual offers.

“As a practical next step, the government should make sure that universities have access to data on free school meal eligibility, and target support where it is most needed.”

Sutton Trust is also calling on the Office for Students (OfS) to review the role of Polar as part of several recommendations to the government to improve the targeting of university widening access schemes.  

Shadow universities minister Matt Western said: “This report shows ministers must do far more to equip universities with the necessary information to ensure diverse admissions, ending current processes which risk excluding students from ethnic minority backgrounds, among others.

“The government’s consultation on university admissions is a chance to finally heed Labour’s call for reform to create an admissions system that genuinely gives equal opportunities to all students.”

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