Risk 1: Knowledge and skills

Students may not have equal opportunity to develop the knowledge and skills required to be accepted onto higher education courses that match their expectations and ambitions.


Differences over access to a high quality education, and the resources needed to fully engage with it (including time and support), may limit opportunity.

Students may have less chance to acquire the knowledge and skills needed for successful higher education, or to achieve grades that reflect their knowledge and skills.

It may also limit the range of subject and course options available, for example, at Key Stage 5.

Factors that influence this can include (but are not limited to) a student’s home circumstances, the school that they attend or the area where they live.

Experiencing this risk is likely to impact a student at the access, on-course and at the progression stages of their education.

  • Low attainment at Key Stage 4 and 5, and/or limited subject choice at Key Stage 5 for students from certain areas, schools or with certain characteristics.
  • This is likely to subsequently impact progression rates to higher education.
  • Where students are accepted into higher education courses, it may also have a detrimental impact on their on-course success.

Students who are:

  • from a low household income
  • first in family
  • disabled 
  • mature
  • white students*
  • from Gypsy, Traveller or Roma ethnic groups, or the Boater and Showmen communities
  • service children
  • young carers
  • care experienced
  • children in need
  • male*
  • prisoners.

Note that the ordering does not denote a scale or ranking system.


It is important to consider how different student characteristics might interact with each other, and with school and areas-based characteristics. Providers may also wish to consider whether the mode of study heightens a risk.

For example, for each of the student groups listed above with an asterisk (*), students who have been eligible for free school meals in the past six years are more at risk that their counterparts who were not eligible for free school meals in the past six years and in many cases, the non-free school meals counterparts are achieving higher than the national average.

It is therefore recommended that providers consider intersectionality closely when looking at their own data.

For different groups of students, the impact of these risks that are visible in data might be:

  • low application rates
  • low progression rates to higher education
  • low offer rates
  • high rates of students not meeting the conditions of an offer
  • low application rates to particular subjects by students from certain schools, areas or groups
  • low on-course success rates for students.

Although this is a national risk, the extent to which it is seen at each provider may depend on factors such as:

  • location
  • entrance tariff
  • whether the provider recruits nationally or locally.

We encourage providers to examine their own data and establish if this risk to equality of opportunity affects their current or potential student population.

It is important to note that the different types of impact that unequal opportunity has in this area will be apparent at a much earlier stage than higher education: differences in attainment, for example, are clearly visible in datasets from Key Stages 1 for students from free school meals backgrounds. They persist throughout primary and secondary education.

‘A Briefing from the Alliance for Children in Care and Care Leavers: Children and Social Work Bill, Committee Stage’. Alliance-Briefing-CSWB-Commons-Committee-Stage-Mental-Health-Assessments.pdf (Accessed 11 December 2023) (tactcare.org.uk)

All-Party Parliamentary Group for Young Carers & Young Adult Carers (2023) 'Being a Young Carer, you have to choose between your future and the future of the person you care for': Inquiry into the life opportunities of young carers and  young adult carers November 2023. (Accessed 11/01/2024)

Anders, J., Macmillan, L., Sturgis, P. & Wyness, G. (2021). ‘Inequalities in young peoples’ educational experiences and wellbeing during the Covid-19 pandemic’ (CEPEO Working Paper No. 21-08). Centre for Education Policy and Equalising Opportunities, UCL.

Andrew, A., Cattan, S., Costa Dias, M., Farquharson, C., Kraftman, L., Krutikova, S., Phimister, A., and Sevilla, A. (2020c), ‘Learning during the Lockdown: Real-Time Data on Children’s Experiences during Home Learning’, Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), Briefing Note 288

Ashworth, E, Kirkby, J, Bray, L and Alghrani, A (2021) ‘The Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on the Education’, Health and Social Care Provision for Children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND): The Ask, Listen, Act Study. Evidence Briefing 1: Quantitative survey data. Discussion Paper. LJMU.

Atherton, G., Satchell, L. (2023) ‘Under the Radar: Service Children and Higher Education in England’. The Service Children's Progression Alliance. (Accessed 11/01/2024)

'Average score for students taking A levels and other qualifications'.  (Accessed 12/01/2024)

Baker, D. P., Akiba, M., LeTendre, G. K., & Wiseman, A. W. (2001). ‘Worldwide shadow education: Outside-school learning, institutional quality of schooling, and crossnational mathematics achievement’. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 23 (1), 1-17;

B., Lacey, R.E., Di Gessa, G. and McMunn, A., (2023). ‘Does providing informal care in young adulthood impact educational attainment and employment in the UK?’ Advances in Life Course Research, 56, p. 100549

Chatzitheochari, Stella and Platt, Lucinda (2018) ‘Disability differentials in educational attainment in England: primary and secondary effects’. British Journal of Sociology. ISSN 0007-1315

Carers Trust (2023) Adult Carer Survey Report 2023: ‘We aren’t unsung heroes. We are forgotten, neglected and burnt out’.  (Accessed 05/12/2023)

Cattan, S., Farquharson, C., Krutikova, S., Phimister, A., Salisbury, A., and Sevilla, A. (2021a), ‘Home Learning Experiences through the COVID-19 Pandemic’, Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), Report 195.

Chowdry, H., Crawford, C., Dearden, L., Goodman, A. and Vignoles, A. (2013), ‘Widening participation in higher education: analysis using linked administrative data’. Journal of the Royal Statistical Society: Series A (Statistics in Society), 176: 431-457. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-985X.2012.01043.x

Cullinane, C., Yarde, J., Shao, X., Anders, J., De Gennaro, A., Holt-White, E., & Montacute, R. (2023). ‘Wave 1 Initial Findings – Financial Inequalities and the Pandemic’. COVID Social Mobility & Opportunities study (COSMO) Briefing No. 6. London: UCL Centre for Education Policy & Equalising Opportunities & Sutton Trust.

Department for Education (2016), ‘Outcomes for children looked after’, 2016 (Accessed 11/12/2023)

Department for Education, ‘Statistics: looked-after children’ (2023). (Accessed 11/12/2023)

Department for Education (2016), ‘Outcomes for children looked after by LA: 31 March 2016’ (Accessed 13/12/2023)

Department for Education (2023), ‘Widening participation in higher education, Academic year 2021/22 – Explore education statistics’.  (Accessed 12/12/2023)

Department for Education (2023), ‘Special educational needs and disability: an analysis and summary of data sources June 2023’.(Accessed 12/01/2024)

Department for Education (2023) 'KS4 national characteristics data' from 'Key stage 4 performance', Permanent data table. (Accessed 12/12/2023)

Department for Education (2023) ‘Statistics: GCSEs (key stage 4)’. (Accessed 01/11/2023)

Department of Health and Social Care (2012) Chief Medical Officer, ‘Our Children Deserve Better: Prevention Pays’. Annual Report of the Chief Medical Officer. 

Elliot Major, L., Eyles, A., and Machin, S. (2020), ‘Generation COVID: Emerging Work and Education Inequalities’, Centre for Economic Performance (CEP), COVID-19 Analysis, Paper 011;

Farquharson, C., McNally, S. and Tahir, I. (2022), ‘Education inequalities’, IFS Deaton Review of Inequalities

Goodenow 1993 cited in Thomas 2012: Thomas, L., 2012. ‘Building student engagement and belonging in Higher Education at a time of change: final report from the What Works?’ Student Retention & Success programme Final Report

Harrison N. (2007) ‘Moving on up: Pathways of care leavers and care-experienced students into and through higher education’

Holt-White, E., & Cullinane, C (2023) ‘Social Mobility: The Next Generation’. The Sutton Trust & COSMO Covid Social Monility & Opportunities Study. (Accessed 12/01/2024)

House of Commons Library (2023) ‘Research briefing: Food povety: Households, food banks and free school meals’. (Accessed 12/12/2023)

Institute for Fiscal Studies (2020) ‘Family time use and home learning during the COVID-19 lockdown’. IFS. (Accessed 12/01/2024)

K Ellis, C Johnston (2019) Pathways to University from Care: Findings Report One. DOI: 10.15131/shef.data.9578930) Pathways findings report (1).pdf

London School of Economics (2021): ‘Journeys into higher education and employment: The impact of covid-19 on young people’.

Lynn Kettell (2020) ‘Young adult carers in higher education: the motivations, barriers and challenges involved – a UK study’, Journal of Further and Higher Education, 44:1, 100-112, DOI: 10.1080/0309877X.2018.1515427

Manfra, L. (2020) ‘Impact of Homelessness on School Readiness Skills and Early Academic Achievement: A Systematic Review of the Literature’

Montacute, R. (2018). ‘Potential for Success’. The Sutton Trust. (Accessed 06/01/2024)

Mountford-Zimdars, A., Sabri, D., Moore, J., Sanders, J., Jones, S. & Higham, L. (2015) ‘Causes of differences in student outcomes’. HEFCE;

Montacute, R., & Cullinane, C (2018) ‘Parent power: How parents use financial and cultural resources to boost their children's chances of success’. (Accessed 12/01/2024)

Morag Henderson, Nikki Shure and Anna Adamecz-Völgyi (2020) , 'Moving on up: "first in family" university graduates in England', Oxford Review of Education, 11 August 2020, p.13

NHS Digital (2018) ‘Mental Health of Children and Young People in England, 2017’. (Accessed 11/01/2024)

Ofcom (2023) ‘Children and Parents: Media Use and Attitudes 2023’. (Accessed 12/01/2024)

Outcomes for children in need, including children looked after by local authorities in England, Reporting year 2021 – Explore education statistics – GOV.UK. (Accessed 13/12/2023)

Reay, D., Crozier, G. & Clayton, J., (2010) ‘Fitting in’ or ‘standing out’: Working-class students in UK higher education. British Educational Research Journal. 36(1), 107–124;

Sebba, J., Berridge, D., Luke, N., Fletcher, J., Bell, K., Strand, S., O’Higgins, A. (2015). The educational progress of looked after children in England: Linking care and educational data. Oxford/Bristol: Rees Centre and University of Bristol

Sharp, C., Nelson, J., Lucas, M., Julius, J., McCrone, T. & Sims, D. (2020). ‘Schools' Responses to COVID-19: The Challenges Facing Schools and Pupils in September 2020’. National Foundation for Educational Research.

Shelter (2006) ‘Chance of a Lifetime’. (Accessed 12/01/2024)

Social Mobility Commission ‘State of the Nation 2023: People and places’. (Accessed 12/01/2024) (publishing.service.gov.uk)

Speirs, N. M. (2020). ‘The hidden curriculum as doxa: Experiences of the working class’. In T. Hinchcliffe (Ed.), The hidden curriculum of higher education (pp. 130-141). AdvanceHE.;

Sutton Trust’s written evidence to the Young Carers APPG submission citing research from Sutton Trust, COVID Social Mobility and Opportunities Study: Wave 1, 2021-2022. Data available at UK Data Service.

TASO (2023) Rapid review to support development of the Equality of Opportunity Risk Register. (Accessed 12/01/2024)

UCAS Next Steps: What is the experience of students from a care background in education? (Accessed 05/12/2023)

Welbourne, P. and C. Leeson (2012) The education of children in care: a research review, Journal of Children’s Services, 7(2), 128-143;

Wood, Clare, et al. (2020) ‘Exploring the Literacy-Related Behaviors and Feelings of Pupils Eligible for Free School Meals in Relation to Their Use of and Access to School Libraries.’ School Library Research 23.

Published 29 March 2023

Describe your experience of using this website

Improve experience feedback
* *

Thank you for your feedback