Elite universities are not instinctively biased against disadvantaged children but must do more to improve access, according to the Education Secretary.
Damian Hinds said there was a “very legitimate public interest” to ensure attempts to encourage children to attend the top higher education institutions reach “deep into the country” and to every group.
He added that university is key to determining future success and suggested there was “encouraging progress” on social mobility due to increased numbers of children from disadvantaged backgrounds attending them.
But Mr Hinds said it was “not acceptable” that 18-year-old applicants from the most advantaged areas of the country are “still nearly five-and-a-half times more likely” to enter the most selective universities than their disadvantaged peers.
The Office for Students has been asked to identify the best approaches for getting children from different backgrounds into university – including the most selective.
Mr Hinds also said more needs to be done at schools in light of data which shows private schools were responsible for 7% of the school population but 40% of those who went to Oxbridge universities in 2016/17.
He added private schools represent 14% of everyone doing A-levels and 25% of students getting three or more As.
The Cabinet minister later highlighted an “expectation and knowledge gap”, pointing to middle-class parents encouraging their children to choose harder subjects such as maths, history and Mandarin as it is a “signalling device” to universities and employers.
His remarks came as he delivered his first major speech on social mobility during a Resolution Foundation event in London.
Mr Hinds said universities are expected to spend £860 million to “improve access and success for disadvantaged students”, adding it needs to be spent well and the challenges faced need to be recognised.
He went on: “The latest statistics on destinations of sixth form and college students show that disadvantaged white pupils are less likely to be studying in higher education the next year than disadvantaged pupils from any other ethnic group.
“And even though disadvantaged black pupils are almost twice as likely to go to a top third university as white disadvantaged pupils, they are both similarly under-represented at the most selective universities, including the Russell Group.”
Mr Hinds also highlighted regional variations in England, noting one in five disadvantaged pupils from London go to a top third university compared to one in 17 from the North East.
Pressed later by reporters, Mr Hinds said: “Do I think that elite universities are biased against disadvantaged children? No, I don’t think instinctively they are – I think they want people to be able to benefit from what they have to offer.
“But I think we need to go further, they need to go further. There’s a lot of money being spent on these access programmes and so on and there’s a very legitimate public interest in making sure that absolutely reaches out as deep into the country and to every group as it can.
“There is a role for things like protected admissions but there’s also a role for information-sharing, and there’s already some great programmes to try and encourage more kids and indeed families and teachers to come and see some of those top universities and not get the impression that ‘that’s not for the likes of me’.
“We need to make sure that happens more and more so opportunity is truly equally spread.”
A new “big data project” will also be commissioned – based on work in the United States – to look at young people from across the UK and where they end up in the next five or six years, Mr Hinds said.
The Education Secretary also addressed new research showing communication skills such as being able to talk about events in the past or future were missing in 28% of four- and five-year-olds.
Mr Hinds pledged to halve the number of children starting school without the early speaking and reading skills they need by 2028.
He labelled it a “persistent scandal”, adding: “On average, disadvantaged children are four months behind at age five, that grows by an additional six months by age 11 and a further nine months by the age of 16.
“So by the time they take their GCSEs, they are, on average, 19 months behind their peers.
“Then what? Your education stays with you and children with poor vocabulary at age five are more than twice as likely to be unemployed when they are aged 34.”
Mr Hinds said leading schools will be able to bid for a share of a £30 million building fund to create new “high quality” nursery places, demonstrating “innovative” approaches to closing the gap to disadvantaged children and their peers.
He reiterated this will be alongside £20 million to train and develop early years professionals focused on disadvantaged areas of the country and to develop language and literary skills for very young children.
Mr Hinds also said the home learning environment is “the last taboo” as he announced an education summit – involving businesses and broadcasters – this autumn to help find ways to encourage more parents to read and learn new words with their children.
He said extra support will be offered but acknowledged he has no interest in “lecturing to parents” about how they approach home teaching.