Reducing inequality in education is a challenging task where progress has been all too slow. This report reviews the evidence on inequality across time and observes how little it has changed, and in some cases how the situation has actually worsened over time.
The evidence we set out shows that how much money a child’s parents earn, which region they live in and their ethnicity are all very significant factors in how successful they are at school. Where someone comes from can still matter much more in determining where they end up in life than their talents or efforts. This is the reality that should be weighed against political discussions of Britain as a meritocracy.
The evidence on the widening educational gap between regions is particularly noteworthy. As the Government’s Industrial Strategy paper acknowledges, regional disparities are wider in the UK now than in other western European nations. Six in ten people live in areas with incomes 10 per cent below the national average.1 Only in London and the South East has GDP per head recovered to its level before the financial crisis.2 Improving educational outcomes in regions with weaker economic outcomes is an obvious answer, but we find that poorer regions of England are actually falling further behind the capital.
In addressing these problems, structural reform – such as the introduction of grammar schools – might seem appealing. However, the evidence for the effects of structural reform in reducing inequality is disputed and limited, and any pursuit of greater selection in state-funded schools would be likely to provoke political debate that distracts from more useful solutions.3 We also note the significance of school budgets; overall pressure on school resources will inevitably create obstacles to progress in this area.
In this context, rather than reviewing the configuration or funding of the education system, the commission has focused on the role of teachers and families. We find compelling evidence of the impact they can have on outcomes; and the differences across local areas and socio-economic circumstances both in access to teachers and the engagement of families are stark.
The importance of both high-quality teaching and parental engagement in a child’s educational experience are well known but inadequately studied. Our research, for instance, sheds new light on the way that more experienced and highly-qualified teachers gravitate to schools whose children come from wealthier families, leaving children in poorer areas with lower-quality teaching and thus widening the gap between them. We offer practical solutions to address these disparities by helping schools in poorer areas to recruit and retain teachers with higher qualifications.
Disparities of family engagement are one of the most challenging and sensitive issues in education policy; many policy-makers have been wary of even discussing the role that different parents play in their children’s educational experience, much less finding ways to help parents offer better support to their children. That reticence has meant that educational inequalities harmful to individual children and society more widely have gone unchallenged. Our report therefore breaks this taboo, in order to provoke a debate about the role and responsibility of parents and what schools can do to support them.
Finally, we note that this report was written and developed by politicians and others expert in the central policy-making process in Westminster and Whitehall. In some aspects of education policy, such as school structure or funding, government can simply order changes to be made. Many of the issues of inequality that we identify, however, are not so susceptible to instructions from above. Effective remedies will instead rely on the understanding, commitment and effort of teachers and families, and our aim here is to support them in this work.