At just 13, girls are more likely than boys to think that university is important

Attitudes towards university at also impact on how young people perform after GCSEs, a new report has shown: positive beliefs and high aspirations play a significant role in predicting better A-level results.

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The growing gender gap in university admissions is already apparent by the age of 13, when girls are more likely than boys to believe that going to university is important, according to a report published by the Sutton Trust today.

Researchers from Oxford University found that by the age of 15 or 16 aspiring to go on to higher education makes a big difference to A-level choices, particularly for disadvantaged students.

Drawing on data from more than 3,000 young people, Believing in Better – the study by Professor Pam Sammons, Dr Katalin Toth and Professor Kathy Sylva at the University of Oxford – explores how a young person’s aspirations and attitudes towards university affect their academic outcomes after GCSE.

Those aged 15 and 16 with similar GCSE results were twice as likely to go on to do three A-levels if they saw university as a likely goal for them. Disadvantaged students were less likely to think they will go on to university than their more advantaged peers, with 27% having high aspirations compared with 39% of their better off peers.

The researchers found that even in Year 9 (age 13/14) girls had more positive attitudes towards university than boys. Almost 65% thought it very important to go to university, compared with 58% of boys.

Over half of all the Year 9 pupils surveyed (61%) thought it was very important to get a degree compared with only 13% who said it was of little or very little importance. Around one in 10 girls felt it was not important to get a degree, but among boys the proportion declaring university of little importance was 15%.

As well as attaching importance to a university degree, the researchers also found that students who believed it was a likely goal for them were more likely to carry on with academic study after GCSE. Over 60% of students who believed it was very likely that they would go to university took three or more A-levels and three quarters of those who felt they were not at all likely to go to university did not continue onto an academic route.

Today’s research identifies a number of factors that are important in shaping pupils’ aspirations and their own belief in their abilities. These include attending a more academically effective primary school, a well-resourced secondary school and being encouraged to spend time on homework.

University entry data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency shows that only 19% of students from the poorest fifth of neighbourhoods enter higher education compared with 45% of those from the richest fifth of neighbourhoods. 46% of girls enter higher education compared with 36% of boys.

Sir Peter Lampl, Chairman of the Sutton Trust and the Education Endowment Foundation, said: “Today’s report shows us how important it is to raise the aspirations and self-belief of pupils from poorer homes, particularly boys. We need to offer more support to disadvantaged young people throughout their education so that they are in a position to fulfil their potential after GCSE. Crucially it shows that both aspirations and attainment matter for pupils, so it is vital that schools support both particularly for their poorer pupils.”

Professor Pam Sammons, lead author of the report, said: “Our research shows that students’ belief in themselves and their aspirations are shaped by their background. However, positive beliefs and high aspirations play an additional and significant role in predicting better A-level outcomes. These findings points to the practical importance for schools and teachers of promoting both self-belief and attainment as mutually reinforcing outcomes.”

The Sutton Trust runs programmes to help raise the aspirations and attainment of children from disadvantaged backgrounds, including Sutton Scholars which supports bright pupils from the age of 11. 

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