The scale of educational inequality in Britain is huge—and growing

Justine Greening is right to focus on the problem but the government has a steep hill to climb in 2018

January 03, 2018
Education Secretary Justine Greening. Photo: NurPhoto/SIPA USA/PA Images
Education Secretary Justine Greening. Photo: NurPhoto/SIPA USA/PA Images

Most people who are interested in education are aware that its quality varies quite a bit across the country. London, formerly a laggard, has been doing well over the last decade and more, while "the North" and some other areas have fallen behind. That much is common knowledge.

But when Education Policy Institute researchers looked at this issue in detail for a recent report, the scale of the problem became more apparent. Researchers identified the English secondary schools which consistently perform well—about 30 per cent of them—in "value added terms.” If these schools were spread evenly across the country, then each area might be expected to have around 30 per cent of secondary places in such high performing schools.

But the reality is not that geographic access is merely unequal—the scale of the inequality is huge and it has been growing since 2010, in spite of government promises to improve education outside London and the South East.

EPI research found that while parts of London have almost 70 per cent of local secondary school places available in high quality schools, the comparable figure in Blackpool and Hartlepool is zero. Indeed, researchers found that 20 per cent of all local areas in England did not have access (in terms of travel times) to a high performing school.

As the fact of this unequal access has been known for some time, you might have thought that over recent years governments would have made some progress in closing the gap.

"Of the 20 local authorities with the biggest increases in access to high performing school places, 16 were in London"
But from 2010 to 2015, local authorities with consistently good access to high performing secondary schools saw the proportion of pupils with access to such schools rise further, from 49 per cent in 2010 to 58 per cent in 2015—most of these areas were in London. Meanwhile, in areas with low densities of high performing schools, access to such places fell from 6 per cent in 2010 to just 5 per cent. This includes not just Blackpool and Hartlepool but Barnsley, Redcar, Knowsley and Middlesborough.

Another way of looking at this is to consider the biggest increases and declines in access to high performing school places. Of the 20 local authorities with the biggest increases, 16 were in London. Of the areas with the biggest declines, none were in London—most were in the North, North East, and Midlands.

What is going on to explain these trends? It is impossible to be definitive from the available data, but we know not only that London has benefited from almost every major government improvement initiative over the last 15 years, but that until recently the "theory of change" adopted by the government was one in which top performing schools helped to spread success through both competition and cooperation. But while this could work in areas with plenty of great schools, if might be far less successful where these are in scarce supply.

Of course, the government says it now has its "Opportunity Areas" to target support to "social mobility coldspots." It is too early to know if this initiative will work, but it is notable that as yet there is not a single Opportunity Area in the low performing North East of England—one of the areas which EPI research indicates is in most need of support. If "Opportunity Areas" are the answer, they are needed urgently in the North East and elsewhere.

This research highlights both why Education Secretary Justine Greening is right to focus on geographic inequality in access to high quality provision, and just how steep a hill the government has to climb in 2018.