Contextual admissions

What is POLAR and how does it differ from other measures of disadvantage?

If ever there’s a situation where universities and schools are talking a different language when it comes to a given topic, we see part of our job as being the interpreter.

One situation in which we find ourselves having to do a bit of translating is when we start to talk about pupils who are from a disadvantaged background. Disadvantage matters – firstly from a social justice perspective but also from your position in terms of advising young people about higher education. When applying their contextual admissions policies, universities are typically trying to ascertain the extent to which an applicant may have faced disadvantage. Understanding how universities do this therefore becomes important.

From 2011 onwards, “pupil premium” has probably been the most commonly used term in schools to identify pupils who are considered disadvantaged. Universities however insist on using their own terminology – with “POLAR” perhaps being the most commonly used term. In this article, I will take a look at some of the different measures of disadvantage which can be used and try to help bridge the language gap which can exist between schools and universities.

Socioeconomic status

One thing that different measures of disadvantage have in common is that they tend to be linked in some way to the broader concept of “socioeconomic status” (or SES). There is no hard-and-fast definition of this term, however if you ask a sociologist or perhaps an economist they will tell you that it is determined by some combination of three factors: occupational type (i.e. whether someone has a more professional or more manual job), level of earnings and level of education. After some brief reflection on this, one realises that school children do not have a socioeconomic status. They don’t have a job, they don’t have a salary and have yet to finish their education. This is where “socioeconomic background” comes in – we must look instead at the socioeconomic position of the child’s parent(s) or carer(s).

Pupil premium

If SES concerns occupational type, salary and level of education, the pupil premium measure ties in most closely with the second of these factors. Whilst some pupils can be identified as pupil premium because they are service children or have been looked after, in most cases pupil premium pupils have been recorded as “Ever 6 FSM” – in other words they are either claiming free school meals now or have done so at some point in the past six years.

Recent research has confirmed that free school meals remains a suitable measure of socio-economic disadvantage, although there is a risk that it can ‘miss’ some deprived children. Since a child qualifies for FSM if their parent(s) are entitled to certain means-tested benefits, it is therefore a measure of economic disadvantage. Occupational type and level of education are not considered directly, but these are of course things which are known to correlate with level of earnings. Roughly 30% of pupils are classed as “Ever6 FSM”, so with this measure we’re typically comparing the 30% of least advantaged pupils against the remaining 70%.


Universities commonly use this term and on occasion might forget the fact that not everyone is familiar with this particular piece of jargon. We’re commonly asked to explain this to teachers, so here goes…

POLAR is actually quite different from pupil premium as it can be predominantly be seen as a geographical measure of disadvantage (but of course geographical and socioeconomic measures can be connected…). It’s an acronym which stands for Participation Of Local AReas. The UK is divided into a large number of ‘local areas’ which are used in the production of statistics collected via the UK census. The Government compiles statistics on how many young people in each of these local areas typically go to university. The 20% of areas with the lowest participation rates are designated as “quintile 1”, the top 20% are “quintile 5” and everywhere else is somewhere in between.

One nice thing about POLAR is its transparency. Anyone can use the postcode look up tool provided by the Office for Students to see which quintile they reside in. Wondering what the difference is between “POLAR3” and “POLAR4”? The main difference is that POLAR4 uses more recent data (and there are a few rather technical methodological differences).

The best way for your students to use POLAR is for them to find out their quintile and then see how this quintile might inform the judgements which universities make about their applications as part of their contextual admissions policies. Students need to be aware that every university uses this data differently, some might not use it at all and finally that any flagging of applications on the basis of POLAR will only be for those applicants residing in quintiles 1 or (sometimes) 2.

One well known quirk with POLAR is that applicants in the London area tend to find themselves at the higher end of the advantage scale. 45% of local areas in the capital are classified as quintile 5 compared to just 1.3% which are classified as quintile 1. This reflects the fact that in recent times a slightly higher percentage of young people from London have tended to progress to university when compared to other regions. This can also serve to illustrate how different measures of disadvantage don’t always converge – it wouldn’t be that unusual for a student in London to be both pupil premium and in POLAR quintile 5 (the most advantaged category) at the same time.

Other postcode measures of disadvantage

There are some postcode tools other than POLAR which universities can use as part of their contextual admissions processes. The most common of these is Acorn.

Acorn isn’t a service specifically for universities and has a wide range of possible applications. Universities typically use it as one of many different ways of gauging the socioeconomic background of an applicant. On the plus side, tools like this use a highly sophisticated methodology. On the down side, it’s all a bit more mysterious as it isn’t possible to check one’s own classification. Having said this, universities which use tools such as this will make it clear in their admissions policies that they do so.

Scottish applicants’ postcodes can also be analysed with the Scottish Government’s “SIMD” (Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation) tool. This combines 38 measures across 7 domains: income, employment, health, education, skills and training, housing, geographic access and crime.

Don’t forget…

There are certain other measures of disadvantage which are worth discussing here too:

> “First in the family to attend university” – this is usually taken to mean that an applicant’s parents have not attended university (whether siblings have attended is not considered). Applicants could choose to mention this in a personal statement, and it could be corroborated by the teacher who writes the reference

> Care leavers – any applicant who has experience of the care system should make sure they tick the appropriate box on their UCAS application so that universities can make sure their needs are being met

> School level factors – this article has focused on individual level factors about students, don’t forget that when it comes to contextual admissions policies school or college level factors can be considered too, such as the average socioeconomic circumstances of pupils at the school and the average exam performance at the school

To find out more about how universities use different measures of disadvantage in their admissions policies, refer to the Advancing Access guide to contextual admissions.

It’s perhaps worth finishing by remarking that there are certain students who might prefer not being labelled using the particular language of “disadvantaged”. It’s perfectly possible for teachers to be tactful when it comes to this, whilst at the same time making sure that all of the students they work with are appropriately supported to reach their full potential.


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