News & Insights 30 September 2022

Explaining the attainment gap, and education inequality in the UK

Education is a fundamental human right which countries have committed to uphold since they signed the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is essential to economic growth, breaking generational cycles of poverty, gender equality and the key to building a fairer and more sustainable future.

However, inequality in education is still a persistent global issue and it is defined as the unequal distribution of academic resources, including but not limited to school funding, qualified and experienced teachers, books, and technologies to socially excluded communities.

Despite being one of the biggest economies in the world, the UK still has social inequalities that impact disadvantaged children and their futures. One of the most significant inequalities they face is unequal access to additional educational support and the opportunities to access it. 

Living in a richer country does not guarantee equal access to high quality education, as was demonstrated in UNICEF’s publication An Unfair Start’. What was interesting to read in this research is that education inequality is far greater within rich countries than between countries, showing that regional differences are a more significant issue than one would imagine. 

Despite the Government’s plans to “level up“, there is enduring regional inequality in the UK education system. Last year in 2021, students in London again achieved the best results in their GCSEs, with more than a third of GCSEs being a grade 7 or higher (considered to be top grades). Meanwhile in  Yorkshire and the Humber fewer than one in four GCSEs were awarded as top grades. 

The UK is by no means the most unequal country in terms of education, and ranks 16; this report focuses on educational inequalities in 41 of the world’s richest countries, all of which are members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and/or the European Union (EU).

However, we are still not doing enough to offer further academic support to the young people who need it in order to have the same opportunities as their peers, and the same prospects later in life.

How do we measure inequality in education?

Generally, grades, dropout rates and university entrance data are used to measure educational success. Put simply, academic performance and all the factors that result in pupils doing well in school (additional academic support, more educational resources, parents who help them with homework, etc.) is what impacts how we analyse education inequality. 

In the UK, children from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to obtain good grades or qualifications and go onto higher education, often resulting in widening social inequalities as they become adults. Children from disadvantaged backgrounds aren’t less able, but they have less access to the tools that support them to progress in school and reach their full academic potential. This is called the attainment gap. 

If you’re a child from a low-income family, you’re less likely to achieve the GCSE grades needed to progress to further education, employment or training. In 2020-21, nationally 67% of disadvantaged pupils achieved a grade 4 or above in English, compared to 87% of their non-disadvantaged peers. 62% achieved a grade 4 or above in maths, compared to 84% of non-disadvantaged pupils.

While there are many factors that contribute to the attainment gap, Action Tutoring exists in order to work towards a solution. We provide free maths and English tuition to those who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford it through partnerships with non-selective state schools. 

Read more about our impact  and the importance of tutoring in narrowing the attainment gap, or watch our video below!

Education inequality and the pandemic 

One of the immediate effects of the pandemic is increased education inequality in the UK. The huge disruption to schooling has affected all children, but especially those from poorer families, which will have long-term effects on their educational progression. 

Children from low-income families were less likely to have access to the resources they needed to learn effectively from home, such as a quiet room to study in, access to technology, extra education resources and private tutoring. 

Official government data also revealed that disadvantaged pupils who were eligible for free school meals (FSM) had higher rates of Covid-related absence from school during the autumn term than their wealthier peers. There is also evidence that school closures negatively impacted children’s mental wellbeing.

Financial challenges at home were also a burden for disadvantaged pupils. These families have found themselves under much more severe financial conditions, with less time and energy to dedicate to the home schooling of their children during lockdown. 

As a result of the COVID-19 crisis, the most deprived pupils are not only more likely to be behind in their learning, but their families are also at greater risk of poverty, food insecurity and job losses. This could further entrench the disadvantage these children face. It is therefore crucial that schools in deprived areas receive adequate and well-directed funding so that they can help to close the disadvantage gap and ensure all children can reach their potential.

Josh Hillman, Director of Education at the Nuffield Foundation

The Institute for Fiscal Studies shows that schools with a high number of disadvantaged pupils in England have already seen the largest decrease in spending per pupil over the last decade, making it harder to address the educational challenges and inequalities resulting from COVID-19.

Tackling education inequality in the UK


Tutoring remains one of the tangible and most effective tools to support learning and accelerate pupil progress in tackling this educational challenge. Research by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) found that small group tuition has an average impact of four months’ additional progress over the course of a year. The National Tutoring Programme (NTP) was introduced in 2020 by the Department of Education as a supportive solution to make tutoring available to pupils whose education has been affected by the pandemic.

Making sure disadvantaged young people are academically supported is the first step towards ending the cycle of poverty. Action Tutoring partners with schools in England and with the help of our motivated volunteer tutors, delivers tailored and personalised support to disadvantaged pupils across the country.

Additional government funding

Sadly, it’s often schools in the most deprived areas where pupils most need additional tutoring support, that find it difficult to find the funds to pay for programmes like ours, even with the NTP grant available. The NTP grant only covers 60% of costs, with schools needing to cover the remainder from their general budgets.

We are proactively working with a number of funders willing to provide specific support to schools in certain areas to help them meet the costs to be able to deliver our programmes and we’re so grateful for their support. 

Additionally, we hope the government will commit to further longer term funding for the NTP and for further support for schools to navigate the energy bills crisis that’s proving a huge drain on many budgets.

Below are all the ways you can help!

Become a volunteer tutor

Volunteering as a tutor with Action Tutoring is an easy and rewarding way to make a difference to the lives of disadvantaged young people living in your community.

By volunteering for just one hour a week, you will directly support disadvantaged pupils to build their confidence and help ensure they leave school with the grades needed to build a bright future, as well as developing your own skills.

Apply by filling the application form here!

Support us by donating

As a charity, donations make a real difference to the work we do and the support that we’re able to provide pupils. Every donation that we receive helps us to reach even more young people and have a positive impact on their education and their futures.

If you haven’t got the time to support as a volunteer, donations are another valuable way to make a difference to the lives of the young people we help.

You can make a one-off donation or set up a regular standing order quickly and easily here.



Follow us on social media

We love using social media to raise awareness on the importance of reducing the attainment gap, engage with our followers and build a community of people who believe educational support should not be a privilege, but a right to every individual, no matter their socio-economic background.

Small acts of support can lead to a great positive change!