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

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