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).