Educational Inequality: What Should We Be Talking About?

Grammar schools have dominated the education debate over the past few days. The argument goes that they improve social mobility by giving kids from more disadvantaged backgrounds a chance. This isn’t the case.

However, it’s important to harness the interest in educational disadvantage that accompanies the debate around selective schools.

Inequality in educational outcomes is a problem faced by school systems across the world; but there is a particularly strong correlation between socioeconomic background and educational attainment in England that we should be trying to address.

Graph data from National Pupil Database, 2010-11 academic year.

There are really two strands here. The first is making sure that all students have access to high quality schools (students from poorer families are much more likely to attend an ‘inadequate’ or ‘requires improvement’ school than their wealthier peers). Regardless of whether or not they actually work, the academies programme is a policy intended to achieve this.

The second, and less talked about, strand is about reducing intra-school inequality. In a brilliant school pupils from poorer backgrounds do better, but still not as well as their wealthier peers at the same school.

OECD: Equity and Quality in Education

The OECD finds that the most successful education systems around the world (for example, Finland, Korea and Canada) tend to combine equity with quality. The pro-grammar school argument is an example of the exact opposite. So what should we be talking about when trying to reduce educational inequality?

1. Teacher Quality

Unsurprisingly, this has a huge impact on the progress a child makes. We should be working to make sure that teachers have a deep knowledge of their subject material and strong pedagogical knowledge. CPD is often superficial and sporadic – training should be ongoing, reviewed and teachers need the time (and funds) to do it.

We also need to sort out retention of teachers. A huge number of teachers are leaving or thinking of leaving. The headline figures are useful but don’t tell the whole story. For example, teachers in deprived schools are more likely to be inexperienced. We need to see which schools are struggling to recruit and where we’re losing teachers.

2. Early Years / Family Focus

The first 5 years of a child’s life are crucially important for their future development and life chances. We need to be supporting parents from poorer backgrounds and making sure that we invest time, money and expertise in early years teaching.

The focus on pre-primary and early primary is justified by a significant amount of research. The EEF toolkit states that early years intervention appears to be ‘particularly beneficial for children from low-income families’. However, funding has been cut from early years programmes. The impact of Sure Start in particular is disputed, but the National Evaluation of Sure Start Team suggest that there were some key positive outcomes and that one of the main problems was a lack of proper data-tracking that could be used to record impact (and has therefore made Sure Start a target for cuts).

3. Regional Variation

Student attainment varies hugely across the country. Ofsted has noted a clear North-South divide in educational standards. In many London Local Authorities, 100% of schools were judged to be ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ while in Oldham, Blackpool and Knowsley the figures were 36%, 35% and 0% respectively. This divide continues into university. For example in 2013 Surrey sent almost as many students to Oxbridge than Wales and the whole North-East combined.

Many schools in parts of the North and the Midlands struggle to recruit and retain teachers, while also suffering from a London-centric view of education. Schools in the capital find it easier to attract highly qualified candidates and also enjoy the benefits of new education initiatives.

The maps above show the variation (by region and LEA) in the percentage of students who achieved 5 A* to C grades in their GCSEs (including English and Maths) in 2015. Source.

4. Underfunding

The Institute for Fiscal Studies anticipates an 8% real-terms cut for schools’ spending per pupil between 2014-15 and 2019-20. This is the first real-terms education cut since the mid 90s. Reduced funding will certainly impact schools in a number of ways. Increasingly, schools’ Pupil Premium money (£935 per ‘disadvantaged’ secondary child) is being used by schools to plug gaps in their budgets.

5. Within-School Variation

Inequality needs to be addressed across different regions but also within schools themselves. The OECD showed that 55% of the variation in pupil results comes from variation within schools, while 10% is between different schools. Excellent middle leaders (especially Heads of Department) drive the improvement of teaching and learning in schools and make sure that students from deprived backgrounds aren’t left behind (see James Toop’s article here). More training and support should be given to middle leaders to ensure that this happens.

6. Opportunities in Higher Education

English university students now face among the highest student debts in the world after the Conservative-Lib Dem government raised the tuition fee cap to £9000 per year. After an initial dip in applications, the rise in fees has not had a significant impact on the total number of young, full time students attending university.

However, there is evidence to suggest that students from poorer backgrounds are staying closer to home and are choosing different courses. Moreover, they are less likely to get at least 2:1 and more likely to drop out altogether. Much less talked about is the fact that since the increase in tuition fees there has been a sharp drop-off in mature and part time students, both groups more likely to be from low-income backgrounds.

The 6 points above only begin to explain why educational inequality is such a big problem in the UK and how we can think about improving it. There are many other factors to consider: the emotional support we offer young people (our children are among the unhappiest in the world); the cuts to welfare and housing that impact a child’s educational success; the postcode lottery that favours the wealthiest; the thousands of (disproportionately poor) students who are excluded from school each year and are at risk of ending up in prison; and how we support young people with special educational needs. I don’t know how to fix these issues – but it would be much better if they were the centre of national debate, rather than the ineffective throwback that is the grammar school system.


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