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Key areas: Education


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.

Significant findings and headline data

Significant findings

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.

Headline data

  • Girls outperform boys routinely at aged 5, at age 16 and at degree level throughout Britain.
  • Free School Meals (FSM) are available in England and Wales to children who come from households with relatively low income. Students eligible for FSM are less than half as likely to achieve 5 good GCSEs including English and Maths.
  • Ethnic differences at GCSE are narrowing except for the top where the two highest performing groups are Chinese and Indian students.
  • In England, the best performing group are Chinese girls; even those on FSM outperform all other ethnic groups whether on FSM or not. The worst performing group is Gypsy and Traveller children. Their performance is declining. Less than 1 in 6 obtain at least five good GCSEs.
  • The performance of Chinese children is scarcely affected by whether or not they are eligible for FSM, whilst by contrast that of Indian children is strongly diminished if they are eligible for FSM.
  • In England, 17% of children with Special Educational Needs (SEN) get five good GCSEs including English and Maths, compared to 61% of children without identified SEN. This does not just apply to people with learning disabilities: only 33% of children whose primary need related to visual impairment attained this level.
  • When SEN is combined with those eligible for FSM, outcomes drop even further. Of children with SEN and who are eligible for FSM, only 10% of girls and 8% of boys in England obtain 5 good GCSEs including English and Maths.
  • Across Britain, disabled adults are three times as likely as others to have no qualifications.

Significant findings

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.

Headline data

  • Cyberbullying is now estimated to affect around a third of secondary age young people.
  • Two-thirds of lesbian, gay and bisexual students in Britain and four-fifths of disabled young people in England report being bullied. Almost a quarter (23%) of young people questioned who practiced any religion in England reported being bullied because of their faith.
  • Homophobic bullying is widespread in British secondary schools. Nearly half of all secondary schoolteachers in England acknowledge that such bullying is common, and just 1 in 6 believe that their school is very active in promoting respect for LGB students.
  • Figures indicate that children in England who reported being bullied did 15% worse at GCSE and were twice as likely to be NEET at aged 16.
  • In England, Asian children are excluded at a rate of 5 per 10,000 students compared to Black Caribbean children at 30 per 10,000 and Gypsies and Traveller children at 38 per 10,000.
  • Almost three-quarters (71%) of permanent exclusions in England involved pupils with some form of SEN in 2008/09. This is equivalent to a rate of 30 out of every 10,000 pupils.

Significant findings

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.

Headline data

  • Women make up 59% of the undergraduate population; the proportion has been stable since 2003.
  • Ethnic minority students are up as a proportion of university students to 23% in 2009 (in line with their proportion in that age group).
  • There is a higher proportion of men at Russell Group universities.
  • Less than 10% of Black students are at Russell Group universities, compared to a quarter of White students.
  • Around a third of Black students get a first or upper-second class degree, compared to two-thirds of White students.

Significant findings

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.

Headline data

  • 1 in 4 Welsh adults lack basic literacy skills, more than in any English region and in contrast to 1 in 6 in England overall. 1 in 2 people in England and Wales lack functional numeracy.
  • 33% of working age Muslim women have no qualifications, and only 9% have a degree.
  • The relationship between ethnicity, literacy and numeracy is very strong and specific cases extremely negative; for example, being Black and male appears to have a greater impact on levels of numeracy than having a learning disability.

Last updated: 25 May 2016