New Commission to report on inequality in educational attainment

Independent public policy think tank the Social Market Foundation (SMF) has launched a new Commission on Inequality in Education.

It has also published initial research into inequalities in educational attainment at ages 16 and 11 across England and Wales, and how these have evolved over time. In particular, it appears that regional inequalities have remained stubborn and in some cases worsened over the last three decades.

Regional inequality

Areas such as the North East, Yorkshire and the Humber, the West Midlands and the East Midlands have persistently under-performed, whilst London’s performance has markedly improved, and it is now the best performing region.

  • Over 70% of pupils in London achieve 5 good GCSEs compared to 63% in Yorkshire & Humber, the worst performing region.

Such regional differences in attainment are already apparent by the end of primary school and are observable even when other factors such as ethnicity and income are control for. 

For 11 year-olds born in 1970, income was the most important factor in achievement, while none-white ethnic groups did much worse than the white group. At that stage, regional differences were very small. Geographic area has become a more powerful predictive factor for those born in 2000 than for those born in 1970.

Income inequality

Only 40% of pupils who receive Free School Meals achieve 5 A*-C grades at GCSE compared to 70% of those not on FSM.

The performance gap has narrowed over the last decade, but when English and maths are included in the measure that progress is no-longer observable.

While the effect on attainment of doubling the family income was lower for children born in 2000 than for those born in 1970, being in the top rather than the bottom decile was a stronger predictor of a high score in 2000 than in 1970.

Gender inequality

Over 71% of girls achieve five good GCSEs compared with just under 60% of boys. This gap has widened over time.

Ethnicity inequality

Ethnic differences are important in their own right. The performance of a Chinese child at age 11 is higher than for a white child of the same age; while over 85% of Chinese pupils get five good GCSEs, only around 59% of Black Caribbean pupils achieve this benchmark.

Over the last three decades, ethnic inequalities have altered radically but a similar level of unevenness remains. While Asian students born in 1970 performed poorly, Chinese, Indian and Bangladeshis born in 1997/98 were the best performers.

White students have fallen from over-performers to under-performers on average over the three decades.

The New Commission

Chaired by former Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, the Commission is an independent cross-party initiative which is examining the causes and effects of the inequalities in education highlighted above.

The other members are Conservative MP Suella Fernandes, Labour MP Stephen Kinnock, Sam Freedman, Executive Director of Programmes at TeachFirst, and Rebecca Allen, Director of Education DataLab.

It will report its full findings early next year.