Creating a fairer Britain
A wealth of evidence shows that education is a key determinant of life chances. As well as being a right in itself, education is an enabling right, allowing individuals to develop the skills, capacity and confidence to secure other rights and economic opportunities.
Educational attainment has been transformed in recent years. Around half of young people are now getting good qualifications at 16 (5+ A*-C GCSEs or equivalent including English and Maths), and in 2008/09, 2.4 million students enrolled in higher education in the UK – a considerable change from a time when educational opportunities were only available to a minority of young people. The indicators examined in this chapter demonstrate this success, but also show that there remain a number of areas where further progress needs to be made.
The evidence from these indicators shows that educational attainment continues to be strongly associated with socio-economic background, despite some signs that social differences in examination results may have started to reduce. At the same time, the gap in attainment between ethnic groups has narrowed more clearly, with some previously low-performing groups catching up with the average. Whereas a generation ago almost all the students on the university campus were White British, today 1 in 5 are from ethnic minority groups and an increasing number of disabled students are also attending. Women are now ahead of men in many aspects of educational success.
However, in terms of both subjects studied, and in the obtaining of good degrees, differences persist. Women remain less likely than men to study Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) subjects, making up 48% of first degree students in STEM despite comprising 55% of first degree students overall. Gender differences in first degree subject choice appear to be declining over time, but extremely high gender segregation in vocational training remains. The proportion of Black students getting first or upper second class degrees is still only at two-thirds of the level of White students.
This chapter also notes that some groups are still not getting a fair deal out of the education system. Young people with special Educational Needs (SEN) account for 7 in 10 permanent exclusions from school in England, and continue to have low educational attainment. A growing number of disabled students are going to university, but this group is still not achieving its potential. Calls to our helpline related to disability and education also indicate that this is an area of concern.
For lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) and transgender young people, attainment trends are harder to measure, but there are signs that they are being penalised by unfair treatment and bullying in the education system, at school and beyond.
Education-related inequalities have an impact over the life-span, not just in childhood. Differences in participation in education persist throughout life. Adults with more prior education are much more likely to access learning opportunities in later life. Tools such as the internet are used to varying degrees by different groups to access information and other resources.
Educational outcomes differ markedly by gender, socio-economic group, ethnicity and disability. Boys, pupils from some ethnic minority groups, and those eligible for Free School Meals (FSM) are performing less well as early as age 5.
For students from lower socio-economic groups, the gap widens during the school years. The gap in students’ GCSE results according to their family backgrounds remains wider than most other educational inequalities, although tentative evidence indicates that it has started to narrow since 2006.
This gap is accentuated when combined with other factors associated with educational underperformance, such as gender and disability.
The experience of school life can be traumatic for some. The new phenomenon of cyberbullying is joining homophobic bullying as a serious issue. It appears that those who are bullied are more likely to be outside of education, employment or
training at 16 years of age.
For those who go on to university, there is a mixed picture. Girls continue their advantage but there is strong subject segregation. More ethnic minority students are now going to university, but they are less likely to attend Russell Group Universities.
There is a geographic component to skills and qualifications. In Wales, more adults are disadvantaged by low skills and qualifications than in most other parts of Britain. In some ethnic and religious groups there are large numbers of people without any qualifications.