Educational inequalities in England have hardly improved in two decades, the study finds

Educational inequality in England has barely improved in the past two decades and is likely to worsen after the pandemic, according to a new study which shows that differences in school performance lead to inequalities later in life.

Research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, a think tank, published on Tuesday found that England is an international outlier due to flat literacy and numeracy skills. In virtually all OECD counties, literacy and numeracy were significantly better among those aged 16 to 24 than those aged 55 to 65, but in England they were about the same.

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

Among those who reached the expected levels of achievement, 40 per cent of disadvantaged pupils achieved good GCSEs in English and maths compared to 60 per cent among the rest of the population.

The study showed that family background continued to be an important driver of educational attainment and thus lifetime earnings and career potential in England, with little sign of government investment to improve the situation.

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

The IFS found that differences in educational attainment affected job prospects. Nine out of ten new graduates were in work between their mid-20s and early 50s. Among those only educated 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 “lifelong 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 widened. In 2010, the average state school pupil attracted £8,000 a year in funding, around £3,100 less than their privately educated counterpart. In 2020-21, a fall in state school spending and rise in private school fees widened the gap to £6,500.

The Association of School and College Leaders, which represents head teachers, said the figures showed England was a “deeply divided, class-driven” society, criticizing 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 education, better support for schools facing the biggest challenges, funding for schools and post-16 education that matches the 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, with a record number of disadvantaged students now progressing to higher education.

It added: “As part of our work to increase opportunities for all, we have invested almost £5 billion to help young people recover from the impact of the pandemic – with over 2 million tutoring courses now started by pupils in need them the most – together with an ambitious goal that 90 per cent of the children will leave primary school with the expected standard in reading, writing and mathematics by 2030.”

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