Gap between Wealthy and Poor High School Students in the UK Means that Fewer go to University

The difference in education levels between the different classes has long been an issue in the UK. Those from the upper, usually wealthy, classes have historically had more chances in education than those from the lower, and poorer, working classes. Unfortunately, although both the Labour and Conservative governments have attempted to put this right over the years, it seems that their efforts have not yet had the desired effect, because according to an Institute of Education (IoE) study, bright pupils from poor backgrounds lag two years behind the rich and are less likely to go on to university as a result.

Starting with the Education Act in 1944, the education system in the UK was based on a dual system. The better, more academically inclined students, having passed the infamous 11 plus exam, would go on to grammar schools, which prepared them for university. Those who weren’t so bright went to secondary moderns, which prepared students for the ‘real world.’

Then in 1965, the concept of a comprehensive system was introduced, which, rather than split the bright and the not so bright, allowed all students to go to the same schools and study for the same qualifications.  This system gradually took over, although some grammar schools remained in place; in 2007, there were still 164 grammar schools in the UK.

The comprehensive system didn’t appear to have the desired outcome either, particularly in disadvantaged inner city areas, leading to the establishment of ‘academies,’ which were introduced in 2000. ‘Academies’ are independent schools funded by the public and “have more freedom than other schools in the maintained sector over issues such as teaching, the curriculum and how the school is governed.” 

Despite all these changes in the education system, the IoE study, led by Dr John Jerrim, looked at the reading ability of 15 year olds in 23 different countries, including the UK. The findings were disturbing, showing that the gap in ability between teenagers in both England and Scotland was almost twice the gap in most other countries. The best performing countries were Germany, Finland and Iceland, where rich teens are only about a year ahead of those from poor backgrounds. The United States and New Zealand had the largest gap in ability. 

An article about the issue in the Guardian goes on to say that this gap has implications for university places, because figures suggest that the increase in university places has largely been taken by the wealthy over the last 30 years, thereby worsening, not improving, levels of social mobility. The IoE study is not the only one to raise the issue of lack of social mobility and there are now calls on the government to put this right; in the past, the government has tried to put the blame on universities for not offering more places to the disadvantaged.   

Of course, ‘academies’ have not been in existence for long enough for them to have made a real impact and it may be that, with time, disadvantaged pupils will come to the fore. Nevertheless, it seems likely that the social mobility issue is more serious than initially thought, which could well mean that the British education system will face even more changes in the near future.