For around a decade, immigration has been among the most salient issues for British voters, and particularly in the years since the decision to leave the European Union, British news coverage has been overwhelmingly preoccupied with Brexit and all of its corollaries. Though social institutions such as the NHS have come to the fore during this period, the issue of the quality of British education has largely been neglected, despite the fact that over half of all voters consistently view education as one of the most significant factors when choosing a party to vote for. When education has featured in contemporary political discussion, it has largely been invoked in relation to immigration, and as such, has been utilised as an ideological cudgel in televised polemics. For these reasons, though many Brits are keenly aware of the existence of education inequality within the UK, few are aware of the extent of the problem, and many continue to view Britain as a meritocratic society.
Yet, the notion of a meritocratic Britain is hard to maintain in the face of the evidence. Many of the problems faced by Britain’s most disadvantaged students begin long before they ever pick up a pencil. A 2018 report on social mobility in Great Britain noted that babies from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to be born with a low birth-weight, which correlates with worse childhood health, worse educational attainment, and lower wages in later life. The earliest years of a child’s education are often the most vital, according to a global report on social mobility conducted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which indicated that more than two-thirds of the achievement gap observed at age 15 and about two-thirds of the gap among 25 to 29-year-olds was already seen among 10-year-olds.
Most alarming is the fact that, despite having some of the greatest levels of education inequality in the developed world, the situation seems to be deteriorating rather than improving for those worst affected. The chance of a child from a poorer background going to a higher-performing school is falling rather than improving. Geographic access to a high-quality education is not merely unequal, but is becoming more so, despite repeated government promises to improve the quality of education outside of London and the South East. One fifth of local areas in England have no high performing secondary schools within a reasonable travel distance, and in some areas, such as Blackpool and Hartlepool, government reports indicate no high performing secondary schools at all.
When I began volunteering for ‘Action Tutoring,’ an organisation that attempts to boost the educational attainment of students from lower socio-economic backgrounds, the immense challenges such students face in completing their GCSE qualifications became more apparent to me than any statistics could suggest. From students who were being cared for by a single elderly relative with a poor grasp of the English language, to students who had turbulent and disruptive situations at home, a common thread with these students was that problems began in the home and had a disastrous effect upon their education. The other common thread was a sense of disillusionment – two girls I worked closely with both expressed no clear extrinsic motivations and very little hope in achieving their desired grades. They felt neglected by a set-system that focused on examination results irrespective of their individual strengths and weaknesses, and teachers who cared more about ticking off specifications than about facilitating any personal growth. Neither of these two students had ever picked up a book outside of school, nor had they been encouraged to do so by anyone within or outside of their school environment. They lacked knowledge of the limited educational resources available to them and had never been taught how or why to utilise them anyway. In short, the extremity of their situations both at home and in school was apparent to them, and the effect deeply demoralising. The available data suggests my observations were not anomalous. The aforementioned OECD report found that the poorest students in Britain were more unhappy and discouraged than in any other developed nation besides Turkey. The report also found that only 15 percent of disadvantaged students in the UK are satisfied with their lives, do not suffer from test anxiety, and feel socially integrated at school. These statistics are utterly embarrassing for the fifth-largest economy in the world.
But the situation is not all bleak. Incentivising high-quality, experienced teachers to work in schools with disadvantaged students is a remarkably simple and effective strategy that has had enormous success in other developed nations. Further, the very fact that organisations like ‘Action Tutoring’ exist is proof that third-parties are willing to step in where the government has consistently failed. The potential remedies for education inequality are numerous, and each is deserving of a detailed appraisal. My next blog post will explore the effect of non-profits in boosting the educational attainment of disadvantaged and vulnerable children, and in doing so highlight one of the many ways we can eradicate the social pollutant of education inequality for good.
Isa Eldin is a member of the Education policy centre’s working group.
‘Social mobility in Great Britain – state of the nation 2018 to 2019’. Social Mobility Commission. 2018. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/social-mobility-in-great-britain-state-of-the-nation-2018-to-2019
‘Equity in Education – Breaking Down Barriers to Social Mobility’. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). 2018. https://www.oecd.org/education/equity-in-education-9789264073234-en.htm