The situation today

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”.

Early years

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.

Attainment gaps

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

Funding and pay

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 schools

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.

Selective schools

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.

Further and higher education

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.

Public attitudes

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