In October, the Education Policy Institute hosted the launch of the latest OECD report on equity in education. It looked at international test scores at age ten, age 15 and ages 25-29 to compare how well disadvantaged young people fare at different stages of their lives.
The positive news from the report is that poverty is not destiny, or at least it doesn’t have to be. In the UK, 11 per cent of the difference in performance in PISA tests (taken at age 15) is attributed to socio-economic status. This is slightly lower than the OECD average of 13 per cent.
Another reason to be optimistic, but by no means complacent, is that disadvantaged pupils in the UK are slightly more ‘nationally’ resilient than the OECD average. This means that 13 per cent of disadvantaged pupils scored in the top quarter of performance at age 15, compared to 11 per cent across the OECD.
But we still have much more to do. At age 15, disadvantaged pupils in the UK still score, on average, 84 points lower than their more affluent peers – a gap which represents three full years of schooling.
The study also found that, in the UK, the inequality gap takes root early on and widens into adulthood. The gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers at age ten accounts for 83 per cent of the gap at age 15 and 60 per cent of the gap at ages 25-29. These findings support EPI’s own research, which finds that around 40 per cent of the gap at age 16 is already evident at age five.
While the UK might fare relatively well (just about) on national resilience, only 15 per cent of disadvantaged pupils are ‘socially and emotionally’ resilient, i.e. feel satisfied with their life, feel socially integrated at school and do not suffer from test anxiety. This compares with an OECD average of 26 per cent.
The conclusions from these findings are clear. In order to achieve greater equity, countries need to focus on policies and programmes that support disadvantaged students. The OECD highlights the importance of promoting greater access to early childhood education among disadvantaged families in order to provide more equitable learning environments and help children acquire essential social and emotional skills. This is supported by a wealth of evidence of the importance of healthy attachments, high-quality care and opportunities for learning in the early years.