News & Insights 31 August 2022

Education Inequality – Is this time for a policy re-think?

Having taught in schools for many years before the pandemic and also during it, I found it both refreshing and hopeful, to detect a discernible shift in media attention away from the usual diatribe of school accountability, to which I had unfortunately become accustomed, to a shift in focus towards issues of educational equity and equality.

As unpleasant as it was for teachers, pupils and parents, the exams fiasco of 2020 and even 2021 served to shift attention towards educational inequality, with the education secretary at the time, Gavin Williamson, claiming that grading would need to be “fair and robust”.

During the course of this period, debates around issues of fairness and equality became increasingly evident. Yet, what was perhaps less obvious to the general public at the time,  was that the problem with the two proposed solutions to cancelled exams was that they would both, in reality,  serve to reflect and highlight existing educational inequalities in the system. 

Teacher assessed grades were problematic because previous research showed that teacher predictions benefit higher performing students from privileged backgrounds and disadvantage higher performing students from disadvantaged backgrounds who suffer from lower predictions; reflecting a systematic bias in relation to gender, ethnicity and low-income families (Kippin & Cairney, 2021). ((

And the notorious algorithm laid bare stark inequalities when private and independent schools increased their proportion of As and A*s proportionally more than other schools whilst disadvantaged students were empirically shown to be the worst hit by grade reductions (Kippin & Cairney, 2021). The reality here, is that this algorithm actually starkly exposed current inequalities, rather than producing new ones, because it connected current and previous exam results in the same school.

The consequences of the pandemic on education – what do studies show?

Not only did the pandemic expose these existing educational inequalities but it also increased them. Reasons for these increased inequalities are complicated but likely to reflect inequalities in the resources that children need to learn. Much was made of the digital divide, with many pupils unable to access online learning, but also parental involvement in school work has already been shown to have positive effects on educational achievement and outcomes (Wilder, 2014; Engzell et al., 2020). ((

Therefore, during the pandemic children from advantaged groups were much more likely to receive parental support and resources to study at home (Engzell et al., 2020). A study in the Netherlands concluded that this was driven by parental ability to help (Engzell et al.,) but other studies also highlight factors such as the differences between those parents who were able to work from home whilst also supporting their children and those who still had to go out to work (Blundell et al., 2020).

In the UK, a study showed that better off families spent more time (about an hour a day more) on almost all educational activities for their children than their peers from worse off families (Blundell et al., 2020). ((

Moreover, the difference in the type of resource available to families was also said to increase the learning gap, with 20% of those in the top-income bracket having access to private tuition.

Therefore, pre-existing inequalities were exacerbated by systematic differences in who has resources; resources of time, knowledge, skills and finance.

And as a teacher at the time, this educational inequality was easy to see and hard to accept. It’s important that the focus on fairness and equality (which gave me a small ray of hope during a challenging time in education) does not fade because these inequalities existed before the pandemic and have now been exacerbated by it.  And for this reason, it’s important that organisations such as Action Tutoring exist; to support and champion disadvantaged pupils and close the attainment gap, something which is long overdue.

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