Why don’t we just… ensure all children do well at school?

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The start of the new school year is a reminder of the inequalities in the UK education system. While charities have been asking for donations of school uniforms, in stark contrast the yearly fee for a well-known private school is around £45,000.

Only 43 per cent of children from the lowest income households achieve five GCSE grades A*–C, compared with 71 per cent of all other children. Around 14 per cent of pupils in England are claiming free school meals and such pupils have lower GCSE results than other pupils.

White pupils who are eligible for free school meals, and particularly the boys, have the lowest results. This doesn’t mean these children fail; it just means that on average they are less successful.

Educational attainment in mainstream state schools in the north has fallen behind that in similar schools in London. Private and selective schools have an impact on the overall ranking of mainstream state schools. Private exam coaching is a factor and some of the most academically able children are not in the mainstream state school system.

School readiness is a teacher-based measure of how well prepared five-year-old children are for school. They are assessed against Early Learning Goals including literacy, maths, listening skills and making friends. In 2017 girls had higher levels of school readiness than boys (78 per cent compared with 62 per cent). There were also substantial differences between areas. For example, between 60 per cent and 65 per cent of children were measured as school ready in areas such as Liverpool, Middlesbrough, Oldham, Rochdale, Leeds, Hull and Blackburn, compared to 78 per cent of children in Richmond-upon-Thames and Lewisham. There are also considerable differences between areas in the level of school readiness of pupils claiming free school meals, by ethnicity and for those children with special educational needs. The assessments are made during the school year and so a child’s development before and during this year, including at home, is an important factor.

A range of measures have been put in place to support children from low income families, including the Poverty Premium, which can be spent by a school on additional learning support. The challenges facing teachers are considerable. One teacher we know has swapped their teaching career to become a delivery driver because of the impact teaching was having on his health!

Research has also highlighted the crucial role of parents and carers in supporting a child’s learning. This can be as simple as encouraging reading, helping with basic maths and talking about the subjects being studied as well as visiting their child’s school and giving up their time and sharing skills. The wider community around a school needs to be engaged for a school to be successful.

The lack of social mobility in the UK is a factor in understanding the inequalities in education. Research by the government’s Social Mobility Commission has highlighted how children from mainstream state schools are much less likely to have senior jobs in professions such as the law, the civil service, medicine, the media and politics.

In the 19th century so-called Ragged Schools funded by philanthropists provided education, food, clothing, clogs and occasional trips to the seaside to the poorest children. Some of the buildings are still standing as a haunting reminder of the inequalities that exist today. The UK is well down the international league tables for exam results and also has low levels of happiness amongst children.

Overall, the evidence highlights the importance of the role of parents, carers, schools, teachers and local communities in addressing the inequalities in education in order to give children the best chance to overcome the disadvantages and challenges they can face.

Of course passing exams is not the only route to a happy and meaningful life, and other important aspects of development often go unmeasured. But cuts in spending on schools, less transparency of academies, limited resources available to Ofsted for inspections, a crisis in teacher recruitment and retention mean that education needs more help than ever before. All schools can and should be outstanding.

Kingsley Purdam and Maria Pampaka are researchers at Manchester University 

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