Educational inequality: a report card

Is the attainment gap narrowing? Given the consensus across the political spectrum about the need to reduce it and the number of policies ostensibly directed to that aim this is an important question. Last week the Institute of Education published an insightful paper by Blanden and Macmillan that looks at trends in education inequality using a range of data. Their conclusion is broadly positive, albeit with an important caveat. They found that:

‘It is very clear that absolute improvements in educational attainment have closed gaps by family background at several important milestones. … This is clearly encouraging for the promotion of children’s life and may lead to improvements in mobility if returns to education remain stable.’

Some of the findings they rely on to support their conclusion are worth highlighting. In particular:

  • There has been a clear reduction in the attainment gap at age 16. The absolute gap between FSM and non-FSM students receiving 5 A*-C at GCSE closed by 12.3% between 2002 and 2011. This has been accompanied by an equally significant reduction in the relative gap, from a ratio of 2.3 (i.e. for every 1 FSM student meeting the threshold there were 2.3 non-FSM students also meeting it) in 2002 to 1.3 in 2011.
  • Perhaps most importantly, evidence of a reduction in educational inequality is not confined to a single measure.  Those sceptical about the trend at age 16 could point to grade inflation or the blunt nature of FSM as a measure of deprivation as potential confounds. However, the authors identify other sources of evidence which verify the trend and that are not susceptible to these problems including attainment at KS2 , analysis of PISA results between 2000 and 2009 and the proportion of students taking at least one A-level at different bands of household income.
  • The participation gap in higher education between the most and least deprived by socio-economic status has also reduced. A modest reduction in the absolute gap of 3.8% (between 2004 and 2009) masks a more significant change in the relative gap from a ratio of 4.3 to 3.1, suggesting that the general increase in participation in higher education has disproportionately benefitted the most deprived.

The important caveat to all of this is that, as Blanden and Macmillan put it, ‘there is little evidence that these improvements have reduced inequality at the highest levels of attainment’. For example, the percentage of FSM students getting A*-B in 3 or more facilitating subjects at A-level showed no change between 2004 and 2010 (remaining a measly 3.9%, compared to a rate of about 8% for non-FSM students). Similarly, there has been no noticeable change in representation at high status universities. As the authors note, this may well have significant consequences for the degree to which the general reduction in inequality translates into broader changes in levels of social mobility.

This is clearly an indictment of the focus on threshold measures and average levels of attainment. We know that the correlation between socio-economic status and academic attainment applies across the ability spectrum. It follows that any attempt to weaken the correlation must be directed at all levels of attainment, rather than at an arbitrary point somewhere in the middle. Upcoming changes to the school accountability framework are a step in the right direction but don’t yet go far enough. As long as any form of threshold is retained as a headline measure there is always going to be a chance that progress is skewed towards that boundary.

It is worth ending with some observations about what we don’t learn from the paper (or indeed from other sources). Firstly, as an assessment of progress in this area this definitely falls into the summative category. We are able to retrospectively describe some broad trends in educational inequality. We are not, however, able to make causal statements. We do not know if the reduction is attributable to changes in our education system as opposed to other factors, and we are certainly not in a position to reliably attribute the reduction to any policies in particular (not that this has stopped some people). As a guide for future policy the data is, unfortunately, of limited use. Secondly, and partly as a result of these limitations, we are not in a position to make any judgment about whether these changes are a reasonable return on the considerable investment in this area. It could well be that with a different set of policy priorities we could have reached this point more quickly. To put in another way, it is difficult to say whether or not this progress is impressive or mediocre. These points demonstrate both the importance of well-designed research in this area (to address the causal question) and the need for robust evaluation to accompany policy.

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