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Educational inequalities in England barely improve in two decades, study finds

Educational inequalities in England have barely improved in the past two decades and are likely to worsen following the pandemic, according to a new study showing that attainment gaps at school lead to inequalities in later life.

Research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, a think-tank, published on Tuesday found England to be an international outlier because of flatlining skills in literacy and numeracy. In virtually all OECD counties, literacy and numeracy were substantially better among those aged 16 to 24 than those aged 55 to 65, but in England they were roughly the same.

At the same time, stark differences between rich and poor persist. Less than half of children on free school meals left primary school with a good level of attainment in 2019, compared with 70 per cent of their better-off peers, the research found.

Among those who did reach the expected attainment levels, 40 per cent of disadvantaged students achieved good GCSEs in English and maths compared with 60 per cent among the rest of the population.

The study showed that family background continued to be a major driver of educational attainment and thus life-long income and career potential in the England, with little sign of government investment to improve the situation.

“We can’t expect the education system to overcome all the differences between children from different family backgrounds. But the English system could do a lot better,” said Imran Tahir, research economist at the IFS. “We bake in failure from an early age.”

The IFS found that differences in educational achievement influenced work prospects. Nine in ten graduates were in employment between their mid-20s and early 50s. Among those educated only to GCSE level, two in five women and one in five men in their 30s were out of work.

Josh Hillman, director of education at the Nuffield Foundation, a charity, said the research demonstrated the “life-long impact” of the disadvantage gap on life chances.

Despite spending increases in recent years, IFS analysis showed that education spending in England had fallen from 5.6 per cent of national income a decade ago to 4.8 per cent in 2020-21.

Meanwhile, the resource gap between private and state schools increased. In 2010, the average state school pupil attracted £8,000 a year in funding, roughly £3,100 less than their privately educated counterpart. In 2020-21, a fall in state school spending and rise in private school fees increased the gap to £6,500.

The Association of School and College Leaders, which represents headteachers, said the figures showed that England was a “deeply divided, class-ridden” society, and criticised the government’s “meaningless targets, empty rhetoric and pitiful levels of funding”. 

Geoff Barton, ASCL general secretary, said: “We need to see investment in early-years education, better support for schools which face the greatest challenges, funding for schools and post-16 education which matches the level of need.”

“The stark reality is that the disadvantage gap will never close at the current rate of progress,” he added.

The Department for Education said it had narrowed the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers, and that a record number of disadvantaged students now progressed to higher education.

It added: “As part of our work to level up opportunities for all, we have invested nearly £5bn to help young people to recover from the impact of the pandemic — with over 2mn tutoring courses now started by the pupils who need them most — alongside an ambitious target for 90 per cent of children to leave primary school at the expected standard in reading, writing and maths by 2030.”


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