Tackling it is the key to improving social mobilityby Peter Lampl / January 11, 2017 / Leave a comment
The world’s English-speaking countries, which include the home nations of Britain and the United States, Australia and Canada, have much in common—culturally, historically, economically. But they are also very different in some ways. And nowhere is this more true than in their national education policies.
But despite the differences between their systems, comparing the education performance of different countries can give us important insights into which school approaches are more effective than others. Our latest piece of research examined a range of international evidence to establish what we know about educational inequality across the English-speaking world.
The findings don’t make comfortable reading for us: the education gaps between children of the most and least educated parents when they start school are bigger in the UK than they are in Canada and Australia. Only the US has a bigger reading gap than us.
Looking at a number of pieces of research, the authors consistently found the difference in reading attainment between the richest and poorest to be biggest in the US, where disadvantaged pupils lag behind their richer classmates by about a year before they even start school. Gaps between those with the most and least educated parents are similar.
We estimate the reading gap to be smaller in the UK, at about eight months. However, educational inequality before school starts is less pronounced in Australia and Canada, where children of the least educated lag behind their more advantaged classmates by an estimated six months.
But what is even more concerning is that the researchers found the attainment gaps in both the US and UK to be much bigger today than they were for children born 40—60 years ago. While these gaps have started to narrow slightly in the past decade, they are still much larger than they were in the past.
Earlier research by the Sutton Trust found that the main culprit behind the UK’s declining levels of social mobility was an increasingly strong link between family background and educational attainment. In other words, we have to tackle these educational attainment gaps if we want to improve social mobility in the UK.
The current government has made it clear that doing so is at the top of their agenda. What this latest research tells us is that their efforts have to start in the early years. This means making sure that disadvantaged children have to have access to the best education and care early on. Nursery staff need to be trained so that they have the skills and confidence to help toddlers develop their early maths and English skills.
Of course parents have a part to play, too. Good parenting and a supportive home environment are bigger factors in a child’s test scores than family income. But for parents who may not have had a good experience of school themselves, we can help by making sure they have better access to proven programmes which engage and empower them to support their child’s learning.
If we get this right, we all benefit. But if we fail to tackle these attainment gaps before they really take hold in school and university, prospects for improving social mobility will remain bleak.