How should we be measuring disadvantage?
The reality of working in education is that resources are limited and must be targeted. A recent Sutton Trust research brief¹ outlines the limitations of the current systems used by schools and universities to identify disadvantage. It outlines the risks of both missing students who need specific additional help and falsely identifying students as needing it who do not.
It is vital to understand these metrics as they underpin the contextual offers which students may be eligible for. We must be able to help students navigate this complex landscape where their postcode could translate into lower offers at some competitive institutions (click here for more information about contextual admissions policies). However, the limitations to these metrics of disadvantage make them fairly blunt instruments for understanding the specific challenges and needs of individual students. In light of this, how can we deploy our resources efficiently and how can we alert universities to the barriers faced by our students?
It is crucial that we obtain real knowledge of our students’ circumstances in order to ensure that those who need support are those who receive it. This is particularly important in supporting students to overcome the additional barriers of accessing places at highly competitive universities. We need to use data, but see through it and around it to the human in that data.
Limitations of disadvantage metrics
Without nuanced insight into individual students, universities are forced to use proxy measures in order to assess who is eligible for contextual offers or other WP initiatives, which is why the Sutton Trust were compelled to assess the accuracy of these measures. They concluded that the number of years a child has been eligible for free school meals (FSM) is the best available marker for childhood poverty and is therefore likely to be the best indicator for use in contextual admissions. While UCAS did begin providing data on individual students’ FSM eligibility to universities from 2021, this does not include the number of years a student has been eligible for FSM. This is a data point that could be obtained and used to inform practice at the school/college level though. This information may not be readily available, but conversations can be had, and openness encouraged.
POLAR information is currently used by many universities as their key measure, but the report points out that the measure was not intended as an indicator of family level socio-economic status and correlation between this and family income is described as ‘very poor’ (click here for an explanation of the POLAR mesaure of disadvantage). Indeed, 48% of children classified as “disadvantaged” using the POLAR classification are not from a low-income background.
The report continues, ‘Parental education level, specifically whether someone is first in family to attend university, is also a common marker used by universities. FiF graduates are less likely to have a parent working in a higher managerial occupation (40% versus 85%), or who own their own home (76% versus 92%).’ However, this measure is not verifiable by universities, and while it is undeniably difficult for schools to verify this information, it is possible to make this part of the conversation with students when discussing their needs.
This is what the report has to say about the Index of Multiple Deprivation (IMD):
"The IMD is the official measure of relative deprivation used in England. It is based upon seven indicators about the local area (approximately 650 households) in which a young person lives: income, employment, health, education, crime, housing and living environment. As an area-level measure, it requires information about home postcode, collected from schools, government records or self-reported by pupils. When used by universities in contextual admissions, disadvantaged pupils are usually defined as IMD quintiles 1 and 2 – the most disadvantaged 40% of children by this measure. This is broadly consistent with evidence that suggests the most disadvantaged 34% of pupils according to this measure serves as the best proxy for a low-income family background [..].
Even when used optimally, it can only capture income deprivation with limited accuracy, missing around 27% of children from low-income backgrounds. Moreover around 30% of children are inaccurately classified as coming from a disadvantaged (permanently ‘low-income’) background using the IMD.
There are also some important biases in this measure as a proxy for low family income. Specifically, the IMD underestimates the probability that BAME children, those living in London, those living in rented accommodation, single parent families and those children with young mothers are in the lowest income group."
With the limitations of the current measures, there are no ‘one size fits all’ solutions available to us. As a result, indicators we identify as relevant in our contexts need to be recorded by schools centrally, just as we would do for measures of achievement or safeguarding concerns.
Current measures of social and economic disadvantage can be crude. Although ‘BAME’ is used in the report cited above, it is an increasingly outdated definition. It is still used by some schools to indicate students who may require additional support, but this vast group contains too many nuances for it to be either helpful or a desirable way to describe individuals. Government figures2 show, for example, that students who identify as being of Chinese ethnicity have the highest rate of progression to Higher Education of all ethnicities while white students have the lowest progression rate and the least improving picture. Grouping students of all minority ethnicities together both ignores the facts and the individual.
There is also the issue of students not identifying themselves as being from an underrepresented group, either because they do not see themselves as belonging to a particular group or because they are concerned that they will be treated differently.
Filling in the gaps
Schools and colleges should look carefully at the issues which are most significant in their contexts, for their students. For example, if a setting has a large proportion of students who are eligible for FSM, having open conversations about the number of years students have been eligible may be helpful in ensuring that those in most severe need are not missed. Similarly, particularly in the light of new rules of eligibility for FSM, being observant and open around the circumstances of students who are not eligible for FSM but for whom economic barriers may be relevant, will allow us to safeguard the opportunities of all of our students.
Not all information is concrete and verifiable and the central recording of these factors can help those who are charged with allocating resources and writing references for students. For example, it is suspected that students who are carers are underrepresented in HE, but it’s difficult to find definitive evidence as students often do not either declare themselves as carers or identify themselves as such. However, we can make notes about these things about our students, not to stigmatise them, but to ensure we remove barriers they may not even see they face, or which may seem so insurmountable, alternatives do not seem possible.
Teachers and those working in educational settings have many onerous tasks but talking to their students and getting to know their circumstances should not be looked at in this way. It is a crucial part of ensuring that our progression resources are targeted to have as much impact as possible and to ensure that all students are given fair access to HE, including the most competitive courses.
1. The Sutton Trust (2021) Measuring Disadvantage, Available at https://www.suttontrust.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/Measuring-Disadvantage-Report.pdf
2. Department for Education (2021) Widening participation in higher education, Available at https://explore-education-statistics.service.gov.uk/find-statistics/widening-participation-in-higher-education
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