Educational performance appears to be one of the main barriers which stop people moving out of poverty. Yet studies indicate that poorer children are still failing to achieve their educational potential. How should these continuing inequalities be addressed? Policies that focus on early years, greater ‘school readiness’ and support for parents are clearly important but research also points to the multiple structural problems that prevent poor children from achieving their potential, including the pressing need for more ‘good’ schools.

Key findings

  • The strong correlation between parental education and children’s achievement in the UK is very high by international standards. Education mobility for the current generation of children has not changed for the least educated households.
  • By 11, only around 75 per cent of children from the poorest fifth of families reach the expected level at Key Stage Two, compared to 97 per cent of children from the richest fifth. Only 21 per cent of the poorest fifth of children (measured by parental socio-economic position) manage to gain five good GCSEs, compared to 75 per cent of the top quintile.
  • Government child poverty and social mobility strategies should tackle the multiple structural problems (such as inadequate school funding in poor areas, low-quality teaching, exclusions, schools failure to address bullying) which currently prevent poorer children from achieving their educational potential.
  • The achievement advantage of children of higher educated parents relative to those of lower educated parents widens throughout the school years. This widening gap is almost entirely accounted for by the fact that children from degree-educated parents are far more likely to attend higher performing secondary schools and so benefit from a positive school effect.
  • A major obstacle to education mobility is that pupil intakes into secondary schools in England remain highly segregated. Radical options to create more balanced intakes in state schools must be considered as well as piloting innovative schooling approaches to improve attainment for the most disadvantaged children.
  • Better schools are needed: with better teachers and other educational resources, and a better classroom environment, including better behaved pupils and better interactions among pupils and between pupils and teachers.
  • Re-introducing grammar schools and secondary moderns would not help improve social mobility, according to research based on the National Child Development Study. Findings show that the selective system as a whole yields no overall mobility advantage to children from any particular origin.
  • Research suggests that conversion of schools to academy status generates a significant improvement in the quality of their pupil intake and a significant improvement in pupil performance.
  • Aspirations, attitudes and behaviours of parents and children have an important part to play in explaining why poor children typically do worse at school.
  • The Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA) increases participation rates in post-16 education among eligible young adults.
  • Poor attainment in secondary schools is more important in explaining lower Higher Education (HE) participation rates among students from disadvantaged backgrounds than barriers arising at the point of entry into HE. These findings highlight the need for earlier policy intervention to raise HE participation rates among disadvantaged youth.
  • Raising the school-leaving age has a significant impact on individuals’ labour market returns only if those individuals compelled to stay on are induced to complete national recognised qualifications.

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