Education inequality in England has barely improved in two decades, study shows

Education inequalities in England have barely improved over the past two decades and are likely to worsen after the pandemic, according to a new study showing that educational disadvantages at school lead to inequalities later in life.

Research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, a think tank, published Tuesday found England to be an international outlier for flattening literacy skills. In almost all OECD provinces, literacy among 16- to 24-year-olds was significantly better than among 55-65-year-olds, but in England they were about the same.

At the same time, large disparities between rich and poor remain. Fewer than half of children with free school meals left primary school in 2019 at a good level, compared to 70 percent of their well-to-do peers, the survey finds.

Of those who achieved the expected attainment targets, 40 percent of underprivileged students achieved good attainment levels in English and mathematics, compared to 60 percent of the rest of the population.

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

“We cannot expect the education system to overcome all differences between children from different family backgrounds. But the English system could be much better,” said Imran Tahir, research economist at the IFS. “From an early age, we bake in failure.”

The IFS found that differences in educational achievement affected job prospects. Nine out of ten graduates had a job in their mid-twenties and early fifties. Among those who had only GCSE level, two in five women and one in five men in their thirties were unemployed.

Josh Hillman, director of education at the Nuffield Foundation, a charity, said the study showed the “lifetime 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 gap between private and public schools widened. In 2010, the average public school pupil attracted £8,000 a year in funding, about £3,100 less than their privately educated counterpart. In 2020-21, a fall in public school spending and a rise in private school fees widened the gap to £6,500.

The Association of School and College Leaders, which represents school principals, said the figures showed England was a “deeply divided, class-ridden” society, criticizing the government’s “meaningless goals, empty rhetoric and lamentable levels of funding”.

Geoff Barton, ASCL general secretary, said: “We need to invest in early childhood education, better support for schools facing the greatest challenges, funding for schools and education after 16 that meets needs.”

“The stark reality is that the backlog gap will never be closed at the current pace of progress,” he added.

The Ministry of Education said it had narrowed the achievement gap between underprivileged students and their peers, and that a record number of underprivileged students were now moving on to higher education.

It added: “As part of our work to increase opportunities for all, we have invested nearly £5bn to help young people recover from the impact of the pandemic – with more than 2 million tutoring courses now launched by the students who need them most – in addition to an ambitious target that 90 percent of children will leave primary school with the expected level of reading, writing and math by 2030.”

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