The Education angle
The independent National Equality Panel, set up in 2008, to examine how inequalities in people’s economic outcomes – such as earnings, incomes and wealth – are related to their characteristics and circumstances – such as gender, age or ethnicity released its report last week- ‘An Anatomy of Economic Inequality in the UK. It found that inequalities in earnings and incomes are high in Britain, both compared with other industrialized countries, and compared with thirty years ago. The panel found too that despite women up to the age of 44 having better qualifications than men, men were still paid up to 21% more per hour.
Many of the differences examined cumulate across the life cycle, especially those related to people’s socio-economic background.
The report states “We see this before children enter school, through the school years, through entry into the labour market, and on to retirement, wealth and resources for retirement, and mortality rates in later life. Economic advantage and disadvantage reinforce themselves across the life cycle, and often on to the next generation.” The Panel suggested that, by implication, policy interventions to counter this are needed at each life cycle stage. Among the outcomes the Panel examined were educational outcomes (the range of achievement of young people at 16 and adults’ highest educational qualifications) and the employment status of adults.
Social background really does matter.
There are significant differences in ‘school readiness’ before and when children reach school by parental income and mother’s education .Children entering primary school in 2005-2006, whose mothers had degrees, were assessed 6 months ahead of those who had no qualifications above Grade D at GCSE.
In terms of income inequalities the Panel found that some, but by no means all, of these inequalities have their origins in variations in skill levels and qualifications. Despite recent improvements in results at age 16, there is still a ‘long tail’ of low achievement amongst 16 year-olds The UK lags behind other countries in the proportion of the working age population with upper level secondary qualifications (equivalent to GCSE passes at A*-C or above), especially amongst the generation now aged 25-34. There is too a ‘long tail’ of low educational achievement: for instance a tenth of pupils in England have ,GCSE results equivalent to no more than 5 passes at grade F and 3 at grade G. In addition, every extra £100 per month in income when children were small was associated with a difference equivalent to a month’s development. Children with a higher social class background who start with a low assessment of relative cognitive ability when young eventually overtake those with a lower social class background who were initially assessed as having high ability.
The differences in school readiness by parental resources and social class underscore the importance of the early years and the challenges that policies face. Differences related to family resources widen through compulsory schooling, suggesting the importance of reducing child poverty and improving educational attainments of poorer children. The deteriorating position after 11 of low-income White British and Black Caribbean boys is a particular concern, as is that of Gypsy and Traveller children. Considerable differences remain, even after allowing for attainment at 16, in entry into higher education, and the kind of institution attended by social class, ethnicity, and experience of private education. The economic position of young people outside education has deteriorated too. The report says the recession creates the acute challenge of avoiding long-term ‘scarring’ from early unemployment.
The Government is currently trying to steer an Equality Bill through the Commons which is causing some controversy. Critics suggest government action aimed at improving equality of opportunity simply introduces a new level of bureaucracy, while increasing costs, which in turn generates new inequalities and perverse incentives. Rather than focusing on centrally driven equality drives we should focus on what is required to improve social mobility from the bottom up. And the key to this lies in schools and the way they are funded. The current school funding system does nothing, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, to promote an equity agenda. Pupils with no, or poor qualifications will not be socially mobile and will start their working lives at a huge disadvantage .This is where to attack inequalties. If funding followed pupils from an early age and good schools were incentivised to take the most disadvantaged pupils then the equity agenda would be transformed. If schools are not delivering equity an Equality Bill stands no chance of doing so.