‘Educational equity’ is a term that we have been hearing more and more in recent months, building up to the  OECD report at the end of October that provided a detailed analysis of the impact that socio-economic disadvantage has on educational achievement around the world. Unsurprisingly the report concluded that educational opportunity was not ‘equitable’ for children coming from disadvantaged backgrounds, i.e. those students who are disadvantaged relative to their peers with regards to economic, social and cultural status measures. The report itself runs to a solid 169 pages, but some findings that stand out include:

Key findings from the OECD report[1]:

  • In all countries that participated in PISA in 2015, socio-economic status was shown to have a large influence on students’ performance in science, reading and mathematics, on average equivalent to about three full years of schooling.
  • The gap in educational performance opens up early, and grows over the course of students’ schooling. On average across 11 OECD countries with comparable data, about two thirds of the achievement gap observed at age 15 and more than half of the achievement gap observed among 25-29 year olds was already seen among 10-year-olds.
  • Children from disadvantaged backgrounds were likely to be sent to disadvantaged schools, which creates a “double-disadvantage”.
  • Not only were disadvantaged students less likely to perform as well academically, they also demonstrated less psychological well-being than advantaged students, even when they perform similarly in PISA tests. For instance disadvantaged students have less confidence in their own academic ability than advantaged students (even when performing at a similar level), and have what would (traditionally) be classified as lower career aspirations than their advantaged peers.
  • Despite the large gap in educational equity, the report did find that across all OECD countries as a whole, the gap was narrowing, albeit at different rates from country to country.

Reasons for inequity in education

The report explains some of the main reasons why socio-economic disadvantage has such an impact on educational equity, notably finding that disadvantaged children:

  • Have less educational opportunities outside of school, including worse access to educational resources, books and games in the home
  • They are less likely to have access to pre-school education
  • They have lower levels of educational confidence which results in more limited career aspirations
  • There is an increased likelihood of disadvantaged students being sent to a disadvantaged school.

These factors add up to create a sizeable education equity gap by the age of 10. In reality it is well known that the education equity gap opens up much earlier than 10 (e.g. Hart & Risley found there was a 30 million word gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students by the age of 3[2]). that said, the data presented by the OECD in this report shows a stark divide by the age of 10 and that more needs to be done in order to close the gap.

Promising policies for closing the educational equity gap

So how do we close the education equity gap? The OECD report itself is a little vague on specifics, perhaps reflecting the difficulty of the challenge and the fact that there is no silver bullet. Ultimately the best chance of closing this gap is to systematically target the identified limiting factors one-by-one, each of which require their own targeted solutions.

Targeting the double disadvantage

One finding that sticks in the mind is the idea of a “double disadvantage” that is created when disadvantaged students attend disadvantaged schools. The report finds that when disadvantaged students are placed in schools that are typically attended by advantaged students, they themselves are more likely to succeed. On the flip side, disadvantaged students who attend disadvantaged schools are likely to find that their difficulties have been compounded. So what can we do about this? With school catchment areas largely defined by place of living, logic dictates that schools in less affluent areas are likely to have a disproportionately high number of disadvantaged students, leading to the double disadvantage described by the OECD. One logical conclusion would be to review how children are placed in schools to ensure that schools are more socio-economically balanced in their intake, but it could be seen as impractical to force children to travel large distances to attend a school to achieve this balance. It is a discussion worth having though, and seems to be one key variable that can positively help to improve social mobility.

Supporting education outside of school

Another key finding from the report was the need to improve the educational opportunity for disadvantaged children outside of school. Disadvantaged students were found to have access to far fewer educational resources in the home, and they were also less likely to attend pre-school/nursery which was felt to result in disadvantaged students starting school from a position where they are already behind their advantaged peers and therefore playing catch-up from day 1. In an era when public libraries are closing down at a rapid rate[3], and the cost of early years child care is unaffordable or impractical for many[4], the challenges faced by disadvantaged families in trying to offer their children the same educational opportunities as more advantaged families are significant. With Philip Hammond announcing the end of austerity when he delivered the latest budget[5], extra support for disadvantaged families seeking to create positive educational opportunities for their children would go some way to helping to close the educational equity gap. That said it is worth clarifying that this is not all about money. The education budget is already quite heavily skewed towards disadvantaged students[6] (e.g. pupil premium being one example), yet a recent review of this spend has found that the additional funding has had little impact on the educational achievement of disadvantaged students[7]. This shows that it is not a simple question of throwing money at a problem, but investing wisely.  More needs to be done to help schools know how they can spend their pupil premium money to have a maximum impact on social mobility. Rather than allowing schools to spend this money freely, a more instructive approach should be taken, guiding schools to spend in areas proven to have an impact on social mobility. Before that can happen though, more research needs to be done to understand what ‘spending wisely’ looks like in practice as at the moment it is not clear what this means.

Raising confidence and career aspirations

The finding that disadvantaged students have lower academic confidence and subsequently more modest career aspirations than their more advantaged peers was also notable. This is problematic as the report found that:

“Students with more ambitious education and career expectation tend to put more effort into their studies and school experience. Moreover, defining career plans during adolescence motivates students into pursuing their goals”.

Even when comparing students of similar academic ability, the report found that advantaged students were likely to be more confident than their disadvantaged peers. So what can be done to raise the self-confidence and career aspirations of disadvantaged students? The OECD recommends that schools should introduce career counselling to ensure that disadvantaged students have the same access to career advice as their advantaged peers, who are more likely to receive this kind of advice at home. You can’t help but think that greater visibility of career role models will also help to show young disadvantaged students what is possible. With teachers already run off their feet, and with schools desperately strapped for cash as it is, you could understand why this kind of service might be deprioritised for more immediate/visible concerns facing schools.

The role of Edtech

While the OECD report does not see Edtech as quite the silver bullet that some other organisations might have you believe, the Edtech industry clearly has the ability to design solutions specifically to overcome at least some of these problems. Take for instance the lack of access to educational resources in the home faced by disadvantaged students. Recent research has found that 95% of UK children aged 5 to 16 now have access to a computer in the home, with 66% having access to their own tablet[8]. While children may not have access to a wide range of physical educational books and games in the home, their computing devices can be the gateway to accessing a wide range of digital resources through their school logins. What’s more, many of these Edtech solutions are becoming increasingly sophisticated to provide an enriched learning experience for children. If the Edtech industry continues to target the root causes of educational inequity then the thriving UK Edtech scene could well provide many of the answers to the social mobility problems that we are currently facing.

Moving forwards

So long as educational inequity remains a significant problem, it’s important that the conversation around this topic remains centre-stage. Social mobility is well recognised as one of the primary challenges facing the UK, but by focusing on closing this inequity gap it is within our power to change this. To finish with a quote from Andreas Schleicher (OECD Director for Education and Skills):

“equity, or lack of it, is not a fixed feature of education systems. All countries can reduce the impact of socio-economic status on student performance, given the right educational policies and practices”.

Pinpointing exactly what those “right educational policies and practices” are requires more work, but when there is a will there is a way.

Further reading

[1] OECD (2018), Equity in Education: Breaking Down Barriers to Social Mobility, PISA, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/9789264073234-en

[2] Hart, Betty; Risley, Todd (2003). “The early catastrophe: The 30 million word gap by age 3” (PDF). American Educator: 4–9. Accessed 07/10/2018.

[3] The Bookseller, https://www.thebookseller.com/news/cipfa-library-figures-687596, December 17.

[4] The Telegraph, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/family/parenting/childcare-costs-mean-mothers-working-part-time-make-just-13/, Oct 18.

[5] BBC, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-46017125, Oct 18.

[6] Institute for Fiscal Studies, https://www.tes.com/news/school-funding-more-targeted-towards-poor-pupils?utm_campaign=13431398&utm_content=Daily-Register-01112018&utm_source=exact-target&utm_medium=email, TES website, Nov 18

[7] Institute for Fiscal Studies, https://www.tes.com/news/school-funding-more-targeted-towards-poor-pupils?utm_campaign=13431398&utm_content=Daily-Register-01112018&utm_source=exact-target&utm_medium=email, TES website, Nov 18

[8] Childwise, Monitor Report, 2018.

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