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Executive summary


1.The Participation of Local Areas classification (known as POLAR) is a UK-wide area-based measure that groups geographical areas according to the proportion of young people living in them who participate in higher education (HE) by the age of 19. This is known as the ‘young participation rate’. The POLAR classification is used for a variety of purposes, perhaps most importantly to distribute HEFCE’s student opportunity allocation to higher education institutions, and for the monitoring of local and national patterns of young HE participation.

2. Despite information on the POLAR classification being publicly available, and perhaps because of its extensive use across the HE sector, concerns about the suitability of POLAR to measure young participation accurately at a small-area level persist. These concerns centre around the idea that the geography used – the set of census area statistics wards, created for statistical reporting of the results of the 2001 census –is too large to measure young HE participation rates accurately within neighbourhoods.

3. ‘Young participation in higher education’ (HEFCE 2005/03) previously examined the suitability of wards as the reporting geography for POLAR. The same publication also investigated the relationship between POLAR and other measures of disadvantage, and how the background characteristics and HE experience of entrants to HE varied across POLAR quintiles. That work focused on entrants to HE during the 1990s, but the POLAR classification has been updated twice since then – most recently in 2012 – to include the latest information on HE entrants. The purpose of this report is to update and extend previous findings in to the light of the most recent version of the POLAR classification, POLAR3.

Key points

4. This report shows that wards are a suitable geography on which to measure HE participation rates among young people. This is demonstrated by assessing the extent to which wards might conceal pockets of young people in smaller (sub-ward) areas with substantially different rates of young participation. This is assessed nationally as well as for different region and area types within the UK.

5. This report finds that while young participation rates can vary within wards, the majority of the young population are likely to live in sub-ward areas with participation rates that are not substantially different from that of the ward in which they live. This is especially the case for wards in the most and least disadvantaged POLAR quintiles, which also have the lowest levels of observed internal variation of young participation rates. Nationally it is estimated that only one in 14 young people living in wards belonging to the most disadvantaged POLAR quintile resides in a smaller sub-ward area which has a young participation rate substantially different from that of the ward in which they live.

6. The findings reported above are shown to hold true for different parts of the UK. For example, similar levels of observed variation within wards are found across the different countries and regions of the UK, and also when we consider urban and rural areas. These findings are particularly important with respect to Greater London and rural areas, as both are areas where wards are likely to be more heterogeneous than normal. In Greater London, highly affluent and highly deprived neighbourhoods are often located next to one another, sometimes within the same ward, while wards in rural areas can often contain several villages with their own distinct characteristics.

7. The POLAR3 classification is found to correlate with other measures of disadvantage, though in many cases the correlation is not as strong as might be assumed. For example there are several wards which have among the highest young HE participation rates but are classed by other measures as being more disadvantaged than some wards which have average young HE participation rates. These findings demonstrate that POLAR captures a specific form of disadvantage – namely, educational disadvantage relating to participation in higher education – that is different from the types of disadvantage captured by other measures. This means that the POLAR classification is not necessarily an appropriate substitute for other measures of disadvantage, and users of the classification should bear this in mind.

8. Looking at the background characteristics and HE experiences of young HE entrants across POLAR3 quintiles reveals interesting patterns. For example, young entrants from more disadvantaged POLAR3 quintiles are more likely to study part-time and to attend an institution closer to home than entrants from more advantaged POLAR3 quintiles.

Action required

9. This report is for information. No action is required.

Date: 5 February 2014

Ref: HEFCE 2014/01

To: Heads of HEFCE-funded further education colleges, Heads of HEFCE-funded higher education institutions, Heads of universities in Northern Ireland

Of interest to those
responsible for:

Widening participation, Policy development

Enquiries should be directed to:

Leyla Bagherli, tel 0117 931 7276, e-mail