Ask The Expert: Explaining socio-economic inequalities in educational attainment

In our latest ESRC-sponsored Ask The Expert seminar, Professor Becky Francis, Director of the UCL Institute for Education (IOE), explored the socio-economic roots and implications of the educational attainment gap in the UK.

Present Picture

Professor Francis began the discussion by looking at educational inequalities in gender, ethnicity, and socio-economic background.

The gender gap has fluctuated between 7 to 10 percentage points since the introduction of the national curriculum in the 1990s. To put this in context, in 2015 girls were 9.3% more likely to outperform boys in attaining 5 A*-C GCSEs, including English and Maths.

The gender gap remains persistent when accounting for social disadvantage, captured by eligibility to receive free school meals; girls outperform boys in their respective groups. However the data illustrates a 19 percentage point mismatch between boys who do not receive free school meals and girls who do. Additionally, there is a large gap between socio-economic backgrounds across gender; girls who do not receive free school meals are 29% more likely to outperform girls who do, whereas the magnitude of this effect is 27 percentage points for boys. This suggests that socio-economic background is a key issue to focus on when explaining the gap in educational outcomes.

The gap arising with ethnicity exhibits some fluctuations, as more than half of the pupils in six out of eight backgrounds gained 5 A*-C GCSEs (including Maths and English) in 2015. The top three ethnic groups for educational achievement are Chinese, Indian, and Bangladeshi, followed by students of White British, Black African, and Pakistani backgrounds, respectively. However, Professor Francis noted that socio-economic background has strong predictive power over educational attainment for White British pupils only.

Double Disadvantage

Naming family income as the strongest predictor in educational attainment, Professor Francis argued that the persistence of the size of the gap through the decades has contributed to a system which rewards dynastic inheritance rather than merit.

Family wealth and financial capital also contribute to the ‘postcode issue’ in Britain, as the predictive nature of affluence on educational outcomes is reflected as the level of deprivation across areas varies. Professor Francis stressed that this was a problem ‘across the board’ rather than one confined exclusively to poor areas.

Worryingly, the gap in socio-economic inequality does not disappear once pupils start school, nor does it shrink. Professor Francis illustrated how children from different socio-economic backgrounds start school at different levels of ‘readiness’ and as they journey through an education system which groups them in ‘ability’ sets or streams, the gaps in attainment and inequality actually increase.

The ‘double disadvantage’ arises as poor pupils are more likely to be placed in lower sets and streams. As a result, these pupils are more likely to become disengaged and less likely to pursue subjects that enable progression routes to high-status careers.

Best Practice in Grouping Students

Professor Francis outlined the following factors as explanatory for poor outcomes associated with setting and streaming:

  • Teacher expectations and related pedagogy: expectations of pupils in lower sets tend to be correspondingly low;
  • Impoverished curricula and qualifications for those in lower sets, especially when it comes to capping the results of pupils in lower sets to a maximum of a C grade;
  • Quality of teaching, which varies across institutions, and which is often lower for bottom set classes;
  • Misallocation, as placement in sets does not always reflect prior attainment due to a range of factors such as aspiring to strike gender balance targets and educate a mix of pupils from different ethnicities in the classroom;
  • Lack of fluidity, as moving pupils between sets rarely happens;
  • Student engagement and attitudes, which are issues of motivation for those placed in lower sets;
  • Taken together, these factors have the potential to result in a self-fulfilling prophecy, whereby those who are placed in lower sets experience poorer educational outcomes.

Professor Francis is currently in the second year of an intervention programme which targets achievement in English and Maths in years 7 and 8.
The project measures educational attainment outcomes, as well as the level of pupils’ self-confidence.

Preliminary results show a significant trend as pupils placed in the top set for Maths and English are more confident in their attainment potential in each of the subjects, as well as in their ability to learn any subject.

Policy Recommendations

In conclusion, Professor Francis had the following policy recommendations:

  • Continue to fund the Pupil Premium, but need to better support and guide schools in productive investment;
  • Continue to support White Paper impetus for spreading capacity and excellence across the system;
  • Avoid further social segregation (whether within or between school), which the OECD shows to be detrimental to outcomes;
  • Find ways to crack the challenge of engaging parents;
  • Continue to support and enact evidence-based practice.

Professor Francis concluded the seminar by stressing the importance of finding ways to support and educate teachers (including through ITE) on the impact of social identities and social capitals in ways that avoid stereotyping.

Click here for the full presentation.

Ask the Expert is the SMF’s lunchtime seminar series, run in partnership with the Economic & Social Research Council (ESRC).

Building on from the success of Chalk + Talk, the SMF Ask the Expert series brings the best policy output from the world of academia into the heart of Westminster.

This series of events is aligned with current government consultations and parliamentary inquiries, giving policymakers the opportunity to engage with experts in those policy areas.

To suggest a subject for a future Ask The Expert event, please contact the SMF’s events officer Hannah Murphy via


Related items:

Page 1 of 1