Everyone should benefit from a high-quality education that helps them to maximise their potential, regardless of their personal circumstances, with additional support provided to disadvantaged pupils. The state should fund high-quality universal early years education. All pupils should be able to access relevant and affordable further and higher education options. All schools should be fairly funded based on local needs, and should have balanced intakes and equal freedom to innovate.


Fairness and education

Educational opportunities should be equal, because education significantly influences life chances, and children’s life chances should not be fixed by the arbitrary circumstances of their birth. Equality of opportunity in education is particularly important because of the benefits of a high-quality education both to individuals and to society more broadly. Education policy should narrow inequalities in life chances, rather than exacerbating them.

In a civilised society, there should be no link between educational opportunities and family income, so that all young people are given the chance to fulfil their potential, regardless of their family background, school, or where they live.

Lee Elliot Major, Professor of Social Mobility, University of Exeter

Socio-economic inequalities

There is a substantial gap in educational achievement between people from different socio-economic groups. This gap is evident even before the start of school and widens throughout their years of education. Wealthier parents can afford a better education for their children. Even those children from disadvantaged backgrounds who receive a high-quality education find it harder to achieve the same results as their wealthier peers, for reasons linked to the environment in which they grow up. And the still-smaller subset of children from disadvantaged backgrounds who manage to get the best exam results still find that these do not translate into the same job prospects as their wealthier peers.

Broader inequalities

There are also disparities in educational attainment between different ethnic groups, as well as pupils with special educational needs and those with disabilities. Progress has stalled in tackling educational inequalities in recent years, and COVID-related school closures have had a particularly strong negative impact on pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. And there are huge gaps in attainment between the 7% of children who attend private schools and the 93% at state schools. Meanwhile, the further, higher and vocational education sectors are not structured and funded in such a way as to deliver fair opportunities for more disadvantaged pupils to make the most of their talents (especially given the huge unmet demand for skilled workers in sectors such as road transport, construction and social care).

A fairer system

Education should not only improve equality of opportunity and increase social mobility, but should also help everyone to maximise their potential and to enjoy a good quality of life in which they can make an active contribution to society and to the economy. The job of the education system is to help each child to be the best and brightest version of themselves. A fairer society would invest more resources in education to help people to discover and maximise their talents.

Rather than achieving a fair society, educational inequalities based on characteristics beyond children’s and parents’ control – and for the most part related strongly to the experience of child poverty – are rife. They are perpetuated by an educational system that does little to mitigate the unfair advantages available to better-off families.

Child Poverty Action Group, An Unfair Start in the UK

International comparisons

There is no systematic relationship between a country’s income and any of the indicators of equality in education. Other developed countries do better than the UK in making sure that the lowest-performing students do not lag too far behind their highest-scoring peers, which offers the potential to learn from different education policies and practices.

Public spending

Government funding for education is not always well targeted. For example, public spending on under-fives is 10 times less than it is for secondary education, while pupil premium funding does not take adequate account of the needs of pupils living in areas of widespread and persistent disadvantage. Spending per pupil has fallen in recent years, with deprived schools suffering the largest cuts.

The government could free up resources to provide more funding for education by reducing the need for spending in other areas (for example, if action was taken to tackle low pay and insecure work, money currently spent on compensating people for low wages through tax credits could be redirected towards early years education). It could also rebalance the current education budget so that more deprived schools receive a fairer allocation of funding that reflects their needs.

What needs to change

As outlined in The Fair Necessities, we need to take a cross-cutting and joined-up approach that covers education alongside other issues. As a report on parenting and racial equality argues in relation to ethnic minorities, which also has wider relevance in terms of promoting fairness and equal opportunities: “If we are serious about improving the experiences of and outcomes for minority ethnic children and families, we need to provide universal and proportionate parenting support which can better reach minority ethnic families whilst also addressing the fundamental causes of inequalities in the unequal distribution of income, wealth and power in society. This must include action to end in-work poverty, improve the quality of schooling (including ending all school exclusions), and ensure state support for families including the provision of adequate and affordable housing. We need to address these factors that transmit racial inequality from one generation to the next.”

We need to invest more in early years education, with a stronger focus on children’s developmental and educational outcomes (biased towards play, not formal learning) rather than on the provision of childcare for parents, and a universal service that benefits those in greater need as much as the better off. In particular, we should:

  • Create a universal public system of early childhood education that is fully integrated
  • Directly fund childcare rather than subsidising parents to pay private providers
  • Recognise early years education as the first stage of the education system
  • Guarantee high-quality early childhood education and care for all children from birth onwards
  • Scale up the network of children’s centres (family hubs) to reach all families across the country
  • Ensure that the allocation of funding is proportionately higher for deprived areas
  • Consolidate early years public service spending in each local authority
  • Invest in training the workforce and increase pay and qualification requirements
  • In the short term, as a universal integrated system is being established, we should expand eligibility for the 30-hour free childcare entitlement to all families, open universal childcare places for all two-year-olds, and fund a premium for the early-years of up to £3,000 per child

We need to provide more substantial and targeted support and funding for disadvantaged students in full-time education, so that all those who have grown up in poverty are given the best chance possible to fulfil their potential. In particular, we should:

  • Ensure that reducing social inequalities in educational outcomes is a priority
  • Put equity at the heart of national decisions about education policy and funding
  • Prioritise immediate funding to provide targeted support to enable disadvantaged children to catch up from missed learning opportunities caused by the pandemic
  • Use the end-of-year time after GCSE and A-level exams for pupils to catch up
  • Factor in persistent disadvantage into the Early Years Premium and Pupil Premium, and target extra funds to students who have been in poverty for 80% of their time
  • Replace SATs (in years 2 and 6) with an externally moderated digital portfolio
  • Provide funding to support pupils with high academic potential in state schools
  • Address attainment gaps and high exclusion rates for pupils with certain protected characteristics (e.g. boys, disabled children and Gypsy and Traveller children)
  • Reform state school admissions via ballots or prioritising disadvantaged students
  • Open up entry to independent schools to all through the Open Access Scheme
  • Treat all state schools equally in terms of their funding, powers and responsibilities
  • Invest in preventative services to reduce exclusions and the off-rolling of pupils
  • Extend to children under 16 the right to challenge and appeal against exclusions
  • Increase the inclusion of disabled children in mainstream education
  • Ensure that all children achieve a good minimum level of core skills
  • Fund and incentivise schools to develop key life skills in and out of the classroom

We need to provide more support for disadvantaged students in further education, which has been deprioritised and under-funded by successive recent governments:

  • Fund extra teaching time so students can catch up on learning lost during COVID
  • Introduce a Student Premium for disadvantaged students aged 16 to 19

We need to make access to higher education fairer and less critical for future life chances, building a less hierarchical higher education sector that delivers better learning outcomes for all students and reduces the role of A-level exams as a sorting mechanism, while sharing the costs fairly between students and taxpayers, recognising that the benefits of a well-educated population accrue to everyone, but also that redistribution is used partly to smooth incomes over the periods when we cannot work, including the pensions and healthcare used more by the old as well as the education that goes to the young. In particular, we should:

  • Implement post-qualification applications rather than relying on predictive grades that are wrong over 80% of the time and harm disadvantaged students the most
  • Ask university applicants, students and lecturers to report on their socio-economic background, to improve outreach efforts and build a more inclusive sector
  • Require universities to make more use of contextual admissions to open up access to students from less privileged backgrounds
  • Restore maintenance grants for students to at least pre-2016 levels to support those who need it most and reduce the debt burden of the least well-off
  • Make the student loan system available for a wider range of courses (including vocational and adult education), as in France or Germany
  • Improve the representation of women on STEM courses by reforming careers guidance and work experience and encouraging wider subject and career choices

We should improve the availability and quality of vocational education. Apprenticeships can be a powerful tool for social mobility, but they are failing on almost every measure to reach their social mobility potential because of the ‘disadvantage gap’. We should:

  • Use the apprenticeships levy and other mechanisms to incentivise employers to provide more traineeships and level 2-4 apprenticeships, and to move higher level apprenticeships into social mobility cold spots
  • Ensure that the apprenticeships levy is no longer used as an alternative route for degree qualifications for more privileged staff
  • Increase the number of degree and higher-level apprenticeships as an alternative to university and ensuring that young people from low and moderate income backgrounds can access them

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Education and fairness

It is widely accepted that educational opportunities for children ought to be equal, for two reasons:

  • Education significantly influences life chances
  • Children’s life chances should not be fixed by the arbitrary circumstances of their birth

But the precise meaning of equality of educational opportunity is the subject of much disagreement. The arguments are different to those around equality of opportunity in general or in relation to other social goods, for three reasons:

  • Its value. Education benefits both individuals and society as a whole. For individuals, a good basic education provides access to higher education and good career opportunities, greater personal and professional mobility, better decision-making skills and more autonomy at work, more wealth and better health. It also provides more intrinsic benefits to individuals, as developing one’s skills and talents can be enjoyable and is a key part of a flourishing life. For society, good education leads to productive and knowledgeable workers who can generate economic and social value, and to informed citizens who engage with society and democracy.
  • Its scarcity. Although state education is provided for free from the ages of five to 16, funding for education always competes with other priorities and so there will always be some limits to the availability of the highest quality educational opportunities. This often leads to fierce competition for places at the best performing institutions that, despite efforts to ensure equal opportunities, tend to reinforce existing inequalities because of the advantages enjoyed by applicants with richer parents who can afford a better early education, to live in the catchment area of better schools, access to private tuition and other forms of support, and so on. This means that poor and ethnic minority pupils are disproportionately educated in lower performing schools compared to their white and more advantaged peers.
  • Its regulation and provision by the state. Education is one of a small number of social goods that are largely funded, provided and regulated by government. Given the myriad benefits that flow from education, it is arguably the state’s most powerful mechanism for influencing the lives of its members. While the state may no longer allow overt discrimination or unequal provision based on race, gender or other factors, the fact that disadvantaged children do demonstrably receive worse quality education and less support to develop their talents than their more privileged peers harms both their life chances and their self-respect.

Education is a key driver of genuine equality of opportunity (and not merely of social mobility). Where you are born, and how much your parents earn, still largely determines whether you will have access to a high-quality education in England and whether you will be prepared to succeed in life and work. In many areas poorer pupils continue to make far less progress than their wealthier peers. Education policy should narrow inequalities in life chances, rather than exacerbating them.

There is a substantial gap in educational achievement between people from different socio- economic groups. This gap is evident even before the start of school and widens throughout their years of education. Although there is evidence that investment in early years is especially important, this needs to be reinforced with human capital investments through the lifecycle, as learning is cumulative. Children from poorer backgrounds are much less likely to do well at school and progress to higher education. The relatively low educational performance of children from poorer backgrounds – which results in lower earnings – has been identified as an important reason for the fall in social mobility. However, there is a widely held view that doing well at school is independent of children’s social, cultural and economic family backgrounds, and that poverty is no excuse for failure.

As UNICEF argue in their 2018 report card: “In the world’s richest countries, some children do worse at school than others because of circumstances beyond their control, such as where they were born, the language they speak, or their parents’ occupations. These children enter the education system at a disadvantage and can drop further behind if educational policies and practices reinforce rather than reduce the gap between them and their peers. These types of inequality are unjust. Not all children have an equal opportunity to reach their full potential, to pursue their interests and to develop their talents and skills.”

Unequal outcomes in one generation lead to unequal opportunities in the next. Wealthier parents can afford a better education for their children. Even those children from disadvantaged backgrounds who receive a high-quality education find it harder to achieve the same results as their wealthier peers, for reasons linked to the environment in which they grow up. And the still-smaller subset of children from disadvantaged backgrounds who manage to get the best exam results still find that these do not translate into the same job prospects as their wealthier peers, because they have less access to career opportunities, lower levels of cultural capital, an insufficient financial cushion to enable them to take risks or accept poorly paid internships, and so on.

Education should not just be about preparing people to enter the workforce, and nor should it be seen solely as an engine of social mobility that enables gifted people from disadvantaged backgrounds to escape poverty. Education has a wider function, as outlined in the next paragraph. In fulfilling this wider remit, it should not only help to improve equality of opportunity and increase social mobility, but should also help everyone to maximise their potential and to enjoy a good quality of life in which they can make an active contribution to society and to the economy. High levels of income and wealth inequality, as we see in Britain today, make it harder for the state to deliver a good quality education for all, and these two factors combine to put undue pressure on parents to ensure that their children receive the best possible education, while simultaneously making it harder for people from disadvantaged background to enjoy the same opportunities as their peers.

As the 18 century French philosopher Michel de Montaigne and the late British educationalist Sir Ken Robinson have both argued, the job of the education system is to help each child to be the best and brightest version of themselves. It is to teach them intellectual, social-emotional and life skills and to set free their imagination, rather than simply to impart knowledge. It should champion context and experience over rote learning, and should promote independence, making time for hands-on learning, reflection, creative expression, the iterative process, and play. It must also produce well-rounded people who can not only thrive in the workplace but also be responsible and active citizens. We now understand that ability is not just about intelligence or learning, but is also about perseverance, stamina and, most crucially, resilience. In a future world where many more repetitive jobs are likely to be taken on by artificial intelligence, school-leavers need to be equipped with skills that robots cannot easily replicate, like creativity and empathy.

A fairer society would invest more resources in education and other public services that help people to discover and maximise their talents. Everyone is born with natural talent in one or more areas, and often these are untapped and wasted. A better-resourced and more balanced education system could do much more to find and nurture the talents of children and adults alike, whatever they are. Our current system focuses too much on talents that have a direct bearing on academic attainment and earning potential, and too little on this broader spectrum of latent talent and capability.

There are limits to the extent to which education can solve a wider set of social problems where there are high levels of economic inequality. While education remains the key driver of the gap in earnings between people from disadvantaged and affluent families in parts of England where the pay gap is smaller and inequality is lower, this is not true for those areas with higher inequality. In these places inequality is driven by factors outside education, and it is far harder to escape deprivation.

Learning from other countries

There is no systematic relationship between a country’s income and any of the indicators of equality in education. UNICEF’s 2018 report card compiled a league table ranking countries by levels of inequality across the three stages of education (preschool, primary and secondary). It found that some of the poorest countries surveyed, such as Latvia and Lithuania, achieve near-universal access to preschool learning and curb inequality in reading performance among both primary and secondary school students more successfully than countries that have far greater resources. It also found that Finland, Latvia and Portugal have the most equal education systems across all three stages, while some countries have very different degrees of inequality at different stages in the school system; for example, Ireland has poor equality of preschool access but good equality at secondary level, while the Netherlands is the other way around. The UK scored 16 out of 41 countries surveyed overall, scoring particular poorly on equality in primary education and slightly better on secondary education.

The UNICEF report points out that, while educational inequality is pervasive (and that almost universally, children from less-privileged families do worse), some affluent societies do better than others in making sure that the lowest-performing students do not lag too far behind their highest-scoring peers, which offers the potential to learn from different education policies and practices. Societies as diverse as Latvia and Spain have low performance gaps in reading achievement among both primary and secondary school students. Contrary to the view that higher standards require greater inequality between children, there is no trade-off between lower performance gaps and higher average achievement. Making an education system more equal does not mean that standards must sink to the lowest common denominator. Both primary and secondary school students are more likely to achieve a good minimum level of reading proficiency in countries with smaller gaps.

It also warns that, while it is tempting to think that the countries that do worse in the ranking can successfully copy the education system of those countries that do well, and that there are undoubtedly lessons that can be learned from the countries at the top of the league table, these must be replicated with care, as there are many sources of inequality in education, and what works in one country may not work elsewhere.

However, there are some examples of best practice that are worth further consideration, such as:

  • Denmark, whose model of subsidised early years childcare sees families pay up to 25% of the cost, with those on low incomes or single parents paying between nothing and 25% of the cost, discounts for siblings, and the government making up the difference. The UK spends a similar proportion of GDP on family benefits to Denmark, but spends a third of this on tax credits, whereas Denmark spends most of it on the direct provision of services to families. A result of the generous level of Danish state support is that 70% of children under three are in childcare, the highest proportion in Europe (compared to under 30% in the UK).
  • Finland, whose comprehensive school system has sat at the top of Europe’s rankings for 20 years. Children do not start formal academic learning until seven (but there is subsidised childcare for younger children, focused on play). The Finnish system is driven by a commitment to equality (on both moral and economic grounds), and so it outlaws school selection, formal examinations (until the age of 18) and streaming by ability. Competition, choice, privatisation and league tables do not exist. Grammar schools were abolished decades ago. Free school meals are universally provided. Those elements of British schooling that cause most parental anxiety – will my child get into a “good school”, will they get into a top set, will they get a good SATS score – are largely absent. Differences in educational outcomes between individual schools in most areas are relatively trivial, meaning parents rarely send their children farther afield than the local comprehensive. Pupils are generally more content too: a quality-not-quantity approach means school hours are shorter and homework duties are light. After-school tutoring is rare. Finnish children are happier and less stressed than British pupils. Finland devolves more power to teachers and pupils to design and direct learning. Teachers are well paid, well-trained (they must complete a five-year specialist degree), respected by parents and valued and trusted by politicians. There is no Ofsted-style inspection of schools and teachers, but a system of self-assessment. Educational policy and teaching is heavily research-based. Creativity is the watchword. Core competences include “learning-to learn”, multiliteracy, digital skills and entrepreneurship. At the heart of the new curriculum, the National Board of Education says unashamedly, is the “joy of learning.” Underpinning its strong educational performance is a comprehensive social security and public health system that ensures one of the lowest child poverty rates in Europe, and some of the highest levels of wellbeing.

UNICEF published a separate report on children’s wellbeing in 2020, in which the UK was ranked 27 out of 38 countries on a league table of child wellbeing outcomes based on three indicators (mental well-being, physical health, and academic and social skills).

The situation today

The Child Poverty Action Group argues that, “rather than achieving a fair society, educational inequalities based on characteristics beyond children’s and parents’ control – and for the most part related strongly to the experience of child poverty – are rife. They are perpetuated by an educational system that does little to mitigate the unfair advantages available to better-off families.” Meanwhile, a recent article on parenting and racial equality argues that “while there has been repeated recognition in policy over recent decades of the significance of parenting, policy agendas have provided half-hearted, ineffective and sometimes stigmatising support, rather than the kind of universal and proportionate support that families need”.

Over the last two decades, Sure Start Children’s Centres have been one of the most important early years policy programmes. They operate as ‘one-stop shops’ for families with children under five, bringing together a range of support including health services, parenting support programmes, and access to childcare and early education. While Sure Start itself has seen its budget cut by more than 60% since 2010, the principles behind the programme continue to drive policy. Most recently, the Leadsom Review considering the first 1,001 days of life made the case for early years programmes to offer ‘coherent’, ‘welcoming’, ‘joined-up’ services ‘around the needs of the family’. However, as the Sutton Trust has recently argued, “the poorest children are already 11 months behind their peers when they start at primary school, with efforts to close the gap stalling, and evidence that the gap has started to widen once again in recent years”. Better early years provision can reverse this trend, and it needs to be made available more fairly as well as being better funded. At the moment most poorer families do not meet the ‘working families’ criteria that would qualify them for the full 30 hours per week of funded early education and childcare for three- and four-year-olds, and so only receive 15 hours per week. This means that 70% of families eligible for free full-time childcare are from the top half of the income distribution, while only 20% of families in the bottom third are eligible. Making the 30 hours per week entitlement universally available for three- and four-year-olds would be both simpler and fairer for everyone, as well as attracting more public support for the additional investment that would be needed. Meanwhile, new data obtained by the Early Years Alliance through a freedom of information request shows that there is a shortfall of £2.60 per child for every hour that is funded through the government’s 30-hour “free” childcare offer.

The Early Years Commission makes the case for action at this stage of life. It points out that more than two million families with children under five are living in poverty, and poverty is rising fastest for the youngest children; that at just three years old, a child growing up in poverty is nearly one and a half years behind their more affluent peers when it comes to early language development; that each year 185,000 children start school not ready to learn, and children eligible for free school meals are one and a half times more likely to be behind their peers in early learning and development. Meanwhile, public spending on under-fives is 10 times less than it is for secondary education, resulting in underfunded and badly coordinated early years services, and the past decade has seen local authority spending on early intervention services, such as children's centres and family support, decrease by 46 per cent in real terms, while spending on late intervention services, such as safeguarding and children in care, has increased by 29 per cent in real terms.

The UCL Institute of Education lists the problems with early childhood education and care (ECEC):

  • A system that remains split between childcare and early education, creating inequalities, divisions and discontinuities. Despite initial progress post-1997, integration of the system stalled before tackling the ‘wicked’ issues of access, funding, workforce and provision.
  • A ‘hotch-potch’ of fragmented services, different types provided for different purposes and different families. The network of Children’s Centres, which might have provided a unified and universal service, has been hollowed out by years of austerity.
  • A persistent and damaging focus on ‘childcare’ instead of ‘education’, with a failure to understand that ‘care’ should be part of all services for all children, irrespective of their parents’ employment status, and that all early childhood services (including schools) should as a matter of course recognise the needs of employed parents.
  • Entry to primary school at too young an age, not good for children and creating a truncated and weakened early years sector.
  • A split and devalued workforce, overwhelmingly female, mostly consisting of childcare workers with low status and qualification and wages so poor that many depend on welfare benefits.
  • Reliance on a childcare market dominated by private, for-profit services – England has the most marketised and privatised ECEC system in Europe, with consequent systemic failures.
  • A standardised, one-size-fits-all curriculum that is narrowly focused on preparing children for primary school at the expense of diversity and context; with a pedagogy that is measurement-driven and fails to recognise or value many subtle and fleeting signs of learning that are difficult to measure easily.
  • A culture of managerial accountability, with a narrow and prescriptive approach focused on standardised and measurable outcomes. Observation and documentation are used as tools of measurement and standardisation, rather than as productive ways for trusted and reflective staff to value individual children’s capabilities and interests; ‘there is no room for the unexpected because it does not fit the predefined script. But engaging with young children is full of the unexpected’.
  • A pervasive democratic deficit, with democracy absent as a stated value, as a daily practice, and as a means of governing the system and individual services. There is no democratic accountability to local communities, as the role of elected local authorities has withered away.
  • A lack of synergy between policies, in particular between early childhood services and parenting leaves, with a large gap between the end of well-paid leave and an entitlement to attend an early childhood service. Leave policy itself, like ECEC, is flawed and dysfunctional.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission’s 2018 report, Is Britain Fairer, found that boys continue to do worse than girls at school, that children with educational support needs, poorer children and Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children achieve below-average school exam results and are more likely to be excluded from school, and poorer young people are less likely to go to university. It also found that disabled peoples' right to an inclusive education is not being fulfilled, and they too are more likely to be excluded from school. However, it also found that more children who were previously underperforming at school are now achieving the required standards, and that there are fewer disparities in university attendance between groups sharing some protected characteristics.

A report on racial disparities published by the Runnymede Trust in 2019 found that by the end of secondary school, black Caribbean students are 11 months behind their white British counterparts. However, the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that second-generation minority ethnic groups are performing well in education, despite being much more likely than those from white backgrounds to have been disadvantaged in childhood. For example, second-generation Indian, Bangladeshi and black Caribbean women from manual class origins are over 20 percentage points more likely to attain tertiary qualifications than their white British peers, and Indian and Bangladeshi men are over 30 percentage points more likely to do so. The result is that, overall, nearly 60% of second-generation Indian and Bangladeshi men and around 50% of Indian, Bangladeshi and Caribbean women have tertiary qualifications, compared with under 30% of their white majority peers.

The debate about gaps in educational attainment between pupils of different ethnicities, classes and income levels has become embroiled in the culture wars in recent months. A report by the Education Select Committee highlighted that in 2018-19, 53% of disadvantaged white British pupils – those eligible for free school meals – met the expected standard of development at the end of the early years foundation stage, one of the lowest proportions of any disadvantaged ethnic group. However, the Social Mobility Commission said that to focus on white pupils underachieving was to put the cart before the horse, and that their 2020 report on differences in opportunities across England put much more emphasis on economic inequality that affects children of all ethnicities (and that ethnicity is an additional obstacle to opportunity, alongside class and income).

The Fair Education Alliance and Education Policy Institute produced a report card in 2020, looking at attainment by pupils in state-funded schools from early years to further education and measuring the disadvantage gap between pupils eligible for Pupil Premium funding and the rest, as well as differences between pupils from different ethnic backgrounds, pupils with special educational needs and disability and regional differences. It found that progress has stalled in tackling inequalities, and that COVID-related school closures make it likely that any progress made since 2011 will be reversed. In particular, the report card found that:

  • Persistently disadvantaged children (eligible for Free School Meals for more than 80% of their school life) are on average 22 months behind their more advantaged peers
  • Looked after children are 29 months behind other children by the time they sit their GCSEs, while children in need with a child protection plan are 26 months behind
  • Gaps in attainment have widened by 70-75% over the past decade between black children and children from other ethnicities (in favour of the latter)
  • Huge inequalities in attainment outcomes remain in the two main compulsory subjects, Maths and English, with a gap of 17.5 months in Maths and 16.2 months in English
  • Progress in reducing gaps for Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) pupils has been slow, particularly for pupils with greater needs, and particularly since the SEND reforms in 2014
  • Regional variations in the disadvantage gap are partly explained by differences in the levels of persistent poverty between regions

The Education Endowment Foundation suggest that Pupil Premium funding is poorly designed because it fails to account for the fact that schools in disadvantaged areas (such as former industrial towns) that have large numbers of children eligible for Free School Meals end up having to use this extra funding to top up inadequate welfare budgets by providing basics such as uniform and stationery, whereas schools in larger cities can use their Pupil Premium funding for direct educational provision such as additional tutoring. This lack of integration between the welfare and education systems creates a double disadvantage for regions with widespread and persistent disadvantage.

There are also issues with the accountability of academy schools trusts. Part of this is about excessive pay - many academy trust bosses in England are being paid “eye-watering” salaries that are “verging on criminality”, according to the president of the NASUWT teaching union, who recently accused some academy leaders of taking advantage of the increasing deregulation of the education system to pay themselves excessive sums of money from the public purse. Research by TES in March found that at least seven senior leaders within academy trusts were earning more than £250,000, while Sir Dan Moynihan, the chief executive of the Harris Federation, earned £460,000 last year. In 2019 the Department for Education wrote to 94 trust leaders whose pay was regarded as excessively high to ask them to justify their inflated salaries, but excessive pay continues to be a concern and unions say the government’s powers to intervene are “utterly feeble”. The other issue is that the government has allowed failing academy trusts to strip assets from the schools they were managing and leave taxpayers to foot the final bill, as happened in 2017 with Wakefield City Academies Trust, which up until that September had been responsible for twenty-one Yorkshire schools. Meanwhile, data shows that multi-academy trusts scored lower on average for Progress 8 – the government’s accountability measure for secondary schools – than all state schools in England in 2018.

Private education also provides children with significant advantages compared to their state-educated peers. Around 7% of all school-age children in England attend private schools, though they are unevenly distributed by age; among pupils over 16, more than 15% are at independent schools. Despite being a small minority, private school leavers are highly overrepresented within certain high-level occupations, such as politicians, judges and journalists. They also dominate higher-tariff universities. The recent set of GCSE and A-level results revealed an even wider gap than usual between private and state schools, exacerbated by the pandemic (see below). According to Ofqual, in 2021 there was a 31 percentage-point gap between private and state schools in A* and A grades at A-level, up from 24 points in 2019. The disparity is not limited to grades; private school leavers also benefit from a range of other advantages in terms of their career prospects and life chances, including their access to elite social networks and the extracurricular opportunities that they have enjoyed at school.

There is also a large attainment gap between children who attend selective secondary schools and those at comprehensive schools. 2021’s GCSE results showed a 48 percentage-point gap between the two in terms of the number of pupils achieving top grades, up from 44 points in 2019. However, other research showed that students at grammar schools do not perform significantly better than students at non-selective state schools, although there is still a negative impact on the attainment and social mobility of students at non-selective state schools.

It is not just in academic qualifications where disadvantaged students lag behind. The Sutton Trust found in 2017 that poorer pupils are much less likely to have opportunities to develop essential skills (such as motivation and communication skills) that they need for success. And schools with higher numbers of poorer pupils are less likely to offer opportunities for children to develop these skills. Research has also shown that children from poor families are still more likely to have poorly developed social and emotional skills.

The ‘firm approach’ to discipline that results in formal exclusions, and also to informal and sometimes illegal exclusions known as ‘off-rolling’, has a disproportionate impact on ethnic minority pupils, and is what Anne Longfield (then children’s commissioner) once described as ‘pushing vulnerable pupils out through the back door’. The practice of school exclusion was used extensively against black children in the 1970s, with many immigrant children being moved to special schools following racially biased assessments of educational needs, and galvanising the formation of the black supplementary schools movement. Off-rolling still does significant damage today, and black Caribbean children are more likely than others to be permanently excluded from school. Both of these facts were noted in the 2019 Timpson review of school exclusion, which recommended that (as well as setting high expectations for every child, giving schools the skills and capacity to deliver, and creating the best conditions for every child) clear safeguards should be introduced to protect against informal exclusion and off-rolling, and to ensure that every child is safe and in education. However, only three of the 30 recommendations addressed racial disparities in exclusionary practices, and the review has led to further obfuscation rather than illumination, meaning that off-rolling is likely have continued throughout the pandemic.

Socio-economic inequalities in schooling are compounded by structural problems in post-16 education that tends to track people into narrow subject areas. There are particular issues with vocational education (pursued by over half the cohort), with a complicated and overly specialised system that does not have clear pathways. The near-absence of tertiary education outside of university degrees contributes to this problem, and reductions in government spending since 2010 have been much larger in further education than in schools or universities. All of this has a disproportionate impact on those from lower socio-economic groups because they are more likely to pursue vocational education.

Apprenticeships provide an opportunity for those with lower GCSE grades who are less likely to go to university. However, access to apprenticeships is unequal, as those from low socio-economic groups are less likely to commence an advanced apprenticeship.

Inequalities also persist in terms of access to and attainment at university, despite some recent progress. The University of Manchester lays out the current challenges: private school leavers make up 55% of students at Russell Group universities; the rate of acceptance from wealthy communities is rising at a faster rate than from disadvantaged communities; progress in admitting disadvantaged students has been greater in less established universities than in ‘high tariff’ institutions whose degrees are more valued by employers; and even degree level apprenticeship places, traditionally perceived as a more accessible route for the working class, are over half-filled with students from more advantaged backgrounds. This level of inequality cannot be explained by educational attainment alone, since even when both wealthy and disadvantaged state school students achieve the same A-level results, the wealthiest students are still admitted 5% more often.

Our education system funnels young people to different higher education institutions according to their parents’ resources much more than other countries do, and into subjects determined very much by their social and economic background. So, for example, students from wealthy families make up a disproportionate number of those studying subjects like economics, geography and medicine, while those from disadvantaged backgrounds are much more likely to study subjects leading to careers that are less valued and less highly remunerated, such as social work and nursing.

The Sutton Trust conducted some detailed polling in 2019 on public attitudes to education and social mobility, which found the following:

  • In 2008, 53% agreed that people have equal opportunities to get ahead in life; by 2017 this had dropped to 40%, and by 2019 to 35%
  • When asked what makes the most difference to getting ahead in life, 77% felt that ambition was essential or very important to success, while 69% thought that having a good education was key, but increasing numbers think that factors beyond talent and drive are vital (34% thought that coming from a wealthy family was essential or very important to success, up from 14% in 2009, and 54% cited ‘knowing the right people’, up from 33% in 2009)
  • When asked to choose which education policy measures would be most effective in improving social mobility and helping disadvantaged young people get on in life, 26% said focusing on developing ‘life skills’ like confidence and resilience in state schools was key, while 18% thought more high-quality apprenticeships opportunities were important; the third most common answer, chosen by 13%, was fairer admissions to state schools, so that the best schools are open to those from all backgrounds
Recent developments

The Institute for Fiscal Studies has analysed school spending in England and concluded that spending per pupil fell by 9% in real terms between 2009-10 and 2019-20, the largest cut in over 40 years, and while an extra £7.1 billion for schools in England to 2022-23 will increase spending per pupil by over 8%, it will still be 1-2% lower in real terms than in 2009-10. It also found that deprived schools have seen larger cuts (14% in real terms for the most deprived secondary schools from 2009-10 to 2019-20, compared to 9% for the least deprived secondary schools), a pattern that is continued by the National Funding Formula and runs counter to the government's goal of levelling up poor areas. Meanwhile, to date the government has only provided £3bn of £15bn recommended by the Education Recovery Commissioner for catching up on missed face-to-face schooling during the pandemic.

These figures were corroborated by a report by the National Audit Office, which found that average per-pupil funding in the most deprived fifth of schools fell in real terms by 1.2% between 2017-18 and 2020-21, while it increased by 2.9% in the least deprived fifth.

Some government reforms are exacerbating educational inequality. For example, research by the Observer suggests that schools in the poorest parts of England are set to be hit hardest by a controversial change in how the government allocates pupil premium funding, which from this year will be based on the number of children eligible for free school meals in October 2020 rather than January 2021, as would normally be the case, meaning that schools will miss out on pupil premium funding for children eligible for free school meals who enrolled between those months.

The COVID pandemic has exacerbated educational inequalities, just as it has worsened inequality more broadly. The lack of face-to-face teaching in spring 2020 and in early 2021 massively disrupted the education of all children, but it had a particularly negative impact on children from poorer families, with long-term effects on their educational progression and labour market performance. The Institute for Fiscal Studies argues that during the first lockdown, 74% of private school pupils had full school days of virtual tuition, compared to 38% of state school pupils, while 25% of all pupils had no formal schooling or tutoring during lockdown. It also cites evidence that during the first lockdown children from higher income households were more likely to have online classes provided by their schools, spend much more time on home learning, and have access to resources such as their own study space at home, while children whose parents were out of work were much less likely to have additional resources such as computers, apps, and tutors. Estimates of lost learning in autumn 2020 found that primary school children were two to three months behind previous cohorts in reading and maths, and that the learning loss was greater among more disadvantaged pupils; for example, disadvantaged year 6 pupils were seven months behind their peers in autumn 2020, compared to five months in previous years. After the second lockdown, 55% of teachers at the least affluent state schools reported a lower-than-normal standard of work returned by pupils since the shutdown, compared to 41% at the most affluent state schools and 30% at private schools. We know from other literature that the loss of instructional time is likely to have significant adverse effects on pupils’ educational outcomes, not to mention the adverse impacts of the pandemic on children’s wellbeing and mental health.

COVID has also had a disastrous impact on early years providers. The Social Mobility Commission estimates that seven out of ten early years settings had to close during the pandemic due to financial pressures, with disadvantaged areas being hardest hit, and childcare workers either losing their jobs or put on furlough. A survey conducted by the Early Years Alliance in May 2020 found that one in four nurseries feared they would not reopen (although it is not clear that this was borne out in reality).

The number of people starting apprenticeships has also been severely affected by the pandemic. Research from the Sutton Trust shows that, on average, only 40% of apprenticeships continued as normal, with the rest facing learning disruptions or being furloughed or made redundant.

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