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Why are we still stuck on inequality street?

Published: Sep 26, 2022 8 min read


The Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) released its latest report on inequalities in education last month – and at times, it makes for difficult reading.

There are some long-term positives. The number of students achieving at least five good GCSEs or equivalent has increased from under 40% in the early 1990s to 82% in 2012. The share of the working age population with a degree has more than doubled since 2000. This however hides some worrying trends overall.

England stands out internationally for lack of improvement in skills when making comparisons across generations. In virtually all OECD countries, literacy and numeracy skills are substantially higher among young people aged 16-24 than among the older generation (aged 55–65). England is the exception to the rule - while those aged 55-65 perform relatively well, especially in literacy, young people in England have not improved on these skills at all. That has left England ranked 25th out of 32 countries for literacy skills in young people. Interestingly, education spending as a share of national income remains no higher than in the early 2000s - 4.8% of national income in 2020-21. Is this a factor?

In my view, the starkest revelation is the continuing inequality in education. It is interesting to note, with respect to STEM subjects, major differences in the financial rewards to completing vocational education, with the highest returns in areas such as engineering, business or construction. The report states that financial rewards from education also depend on a young person’s own characteristics, which can perpetuate inequalities in the labour market. Young people from wealthier families and private schools enjoy much higher financial rewards from completing a degree than their peers from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Worryingly, even after decades of policy attention by successive governments, there has been little change in the disadvantage gap in GCSE attainment over the past 20 years. While GCSE attainment has been increasing over time, 16-year-olds who are eligible for free school meals are still around 27% less likely to earn good GCSEs than less disadvantaged peers. Children from disadvantaged backgrounds also make slower progress through secondary school. In the 2019 GCSE cohort, just 40% of disadvantaged children who achieved the expected level at age 11 went on to earn good GCSEs in English and maths, compared with 60% of their non-disadvantaged peers. And while 95% of non-disadvantaged pupils who achieved above the expected level at age 11 went on to earn good GCSEs, one in six primary school high achievers from disadvantaged backgrounds missed out on the GCSE benchmark. Pupils who were not eligible for free school meals are around three times as likely as their more disadvantaged peers to achieve above the expected level at age 11 and at GCSE. They were also three times more likely to attend one of the most selective higher education institutions.

The report suggests that household income is a strong predictor of attainment. Around 40% of young people who just miss out on free school meals achieve good GCSEs, rising to 70% of 16-year-olds in the richest third of families. And while 71% of private school students had earned a degree by age 26, just 17% of those from the poorest fifth of families had reached that milestone. More than half of the latter group had not progressed beyond GCSE level.

The pandemic has significantly worsened overall outcomes as well as widening inequalities. The share of pupils leaving primary school meeting literacy and numeracy benchmarks fell from 65% in 2018-19 to 59% in 2021-22. The government’s levelling up agenda aims to see this reach 90% by 2030. But is this achievable?

The data re-emphasises that girls consistently outperform boys in the education system - however their educational success does not appear to have translated into gains in the labour market. Girls are around 10% more likely than boys to reach attainment benchmarks at various stages of the education system, while the number of women completing degrees has exceeded the number of men doing so since the 1990s. Women are more likely to progress to higher education but are less likely to select subjects such as computer science, engineering or maths. This places even more focus on organisations such as STEM Learning to encourage girls and women to consider these subjects as attractive options.

Educational inequalities by ethnicity are revealed too. Children from ethnic minority backgrounds typically start out behind their peers – yet seem to make faster progress. By 19, all major ethnic groups are more likely than white pupils to have earned A levels or equivalent qualifications. And by 26, white British pupils are the least likely to hold a degree and the most likely to have stopped their education at GCSE or below.

Despite this, the biggest predictors of educational disadvantage relate to people, not places. Attainment gaps between the government’s new ‘Education Investment Areas’ and the rest of the country are only around a quarter as large as the gaps by eligibility for free school meals. A 16-year-old’s family income is more than four times as strong a predictor of GCSE attainment as their local authority of residence. So, we need to widen our understanding and not just solely focus on ‘place’!

According to the report, differences in educational attainment emerge early in childhood. Only 8% of young people not meeting expectations in reading, writing and maths at the end of primary school went on to achieve pass grades in GCSE English and Maths. Primary school engagement remains a major focus for STEM Learning.

The report adds that all schools should hire and retain effective teachers to mitigate educational inequalities. Having a ‘good’ rather than ‘average’ teacher carries lifelong benefits for earnings as well as behavioural skills. But among the 10% most disadvantaged schools in England, nearly a quarter were assessed by Ofsted to have teaching that ‘requires improvement’ or is ‘inadequate’. In the 10% least disadvantaged schools, by contrast, virtually all teaching was rated ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’.

The report concludes that educational inequalities start early in life, but every stage of the system plays a role in shaping and potentially reducing inequality. Early intervention is important – but it must be followed up and will work best by investment at subsequent stages of education. The IFS recommends that the education system must offer high-quality options to young people who pursue vocational options, especially to ensure that they develop the general skills needed to be resilient and adaptable to a changing labour market.

Government spending on education is one thing, but the report suggests young people need easy-to-access information about the routes available to them, so that they can make the best decisions for their own circumstances. Education is not just about test scores. Opportunities to support children’s broader ‘soft skills’, support their mental health and resilience, their physical health, their social and emotional development, and their ability to successfully navigate the challenges they will face in the workforce and in their lives are all important.

Back to educational inequalities. Can we break this inequality conundrum? As the report suggests this cannot be solved by the education system alone, as family backgrounds have a strong influence on educational attainment. Educational inequalities are a consequence as well as a cause of wider economic inequality. In an economy where the financial returns to ‘making it’ in education are so high, there will always be pressure on parents to invest in helping their children to succeed. Yet this simply transfers the problem. Government and government support are an essential part of the solution.

STEM Learning continues to address many aspects of this inequality gap, including through subsidy supported intensive STEM CPD. In addition, there is a continuing drive to ensure young people meet real role models (STEM Ambassadors) and especially those who have come from similar backgrounds of disadvantage (yours truly) to inspire them to consider worthwhile and financially exciting career destinations. You cannot be what you cannot see, so this element of inspiration can help parents and pupils to see a wider world of opportunity.

STEM Learning has also established ENTHUSE Partnerships – link ups between employers and a group of local schools or colleges which develop awareness and understanding of STEM careers, contributing to the Gatsby Careers Benchmarks. Simetrica Jacobs identified and valued the impact of ENTHUSE Partnerships, using best-practice valuation methodologies consistent with Government guidance on policy appraisal (HM Treasury Green Book). Each ENTHUSE Partnership generates at least £524k in social value, rising to £638k with strong employer engagement. This represents a return of between 26 and 32 on a £25,000 investment. Furthermore, STEM Learning has undertaken sponsored intensive STEM camps to support secondary school pupils with practical skills post pandemic.

All partnerships engage with teacher professional development, and student-focused enrichment and inspiration support, leading to better outcomes for young people. Partnerships which benefit from increased engagement with their employer sponsor (via the STEM Ambassador programme), show even greater levels of impact and generate greater social value. Benefits to young people are the key driver for this social value - students attending ENTHUSE Partnership schools benefit from improved attainment and progression in STEM subjects; increased aspirations for future STEM study or careers; more engagement in enrichment activities and greater confidence and improved belief in their ability to succeed. These projects aim to address the issues raised in the IFS report. There is great work being undertaken - but we clearly need to redouble our efforts, with Government support.