Media Release

PRESS RELEASE: Nick Clegg launches new SMF Commission on Inequality in Education

New research from the Social Market Foundation’s (SMF) Commission on Inequality in Education suggests that inequality in educational achievement between regions has grown over the past thirty years.

The commission, launched this morning by its chair, former Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, is an independent, cross-party initiative which is examining the causes and effects of inequality in education at primary and secondary levels in England and Wales. It will report its full findings early next year.

Initial research by the SMF for the commission examines inequalities in educational attainment at age 16 and age 11 and how these trends in inequality have evolved over time. The research reveals marked regional disparities in educational outcomes:

  • GCSE performance at age 16 across England and Wales shows variations between regions, with over 70% of pupils in London achieving 5 good GCSEs compared to 63% in Yorkshire & Humber.
  • The SMF finds that regional differences in attainment are already apparent by the end of primary school and they are observable even when you control for other factors such as ethnicity and income.
  • Analysis across different cohorts of children sitting exams at age 16 shows that regional inequalities have remained stubborn and in some cases worsened over the last three decades. Areas such as the North East, Yorkshire and the Humber, the West Midlands and the East Midlands have persistently under-performed, behind whilst London’s performance has surged.
  • Comparing the performance of 11-year olds born in 2000 with those born in 1970 reveals that the geographic area a child comes from has become a more powerful predictive factor for those born in 2000 compared to 1970.

Speaking at the launch of the Commission in Westminster, Nick Clegg said:

“What is now becoming clear is that inequality in education comes in many shapes and sizes. It is not just the relative wealth of parents that holds large numbers of bright kids back: it is postcode inequality too. What part of the country a child grows up in has a real impact on their life chances.

“The Social Market Foundation has analysed how well children aged eleven performed over three generations – those born in 1958, 1970 and 2000 – using verbal reasoning tests which could be compared accurately across all three groups.

“For the youngest group – those who are in secondary school today – there were stark differences in performance in different regions. Those living in London, the South East and the North West had the highest proportion of high scores. Whereas those living in the North East, Yorkshire and the West Midlands had the highest proportions of poor scores.”

“We may live on a small island – but which corner of it our children call home makes a huge difference to their life chances too.”

Commenting on the research, Emran Mian, director of the Social Market Foundation, said:

“While parental income remains very important, this new research shows that where you live plays a bigger role in determining educational achievement.”

“Our new research also shows that the story around ethnic origin and education has become much more complex. Previously, children from all non-white backgrounds did less well. Now, children from some ethnic groups, including Chinese and Indian children, do better than the average, while others – including black Caribbean and poor white children – do worse.”

The SMF’s new analysis for the commission also looks at other aspects of inequality and how these affect school results, including family income, gender and ethnicity:


  • The commission’s initial research also shows that a very low proportion of pupils who receive Free School Meals achieve 5 A* to C grades at GCSE level (40%) compared to those not receiving Free School Meals (70%).
  • The performance gap between the richest and the poorest has remained persistently large between the mid-1980s and the mid-2000s.
  • When using the measure of ‘5 A* to C grades’, the attainment gap between FSM pupils and non-FSM pupils is observed to narrow over the last decade.
  • However, when more demanding measures, such as ‘5 A* to C including English and Maths’ are applied, this progress is no-longer observable.


  • Educational performance varies significantly across different ethnic minority groups.
  • For instance, while over 85% of Chinese pupils get five good GCSEs, only around 59% of Black Caribbean pupils achieve this benchmark.
  • Ethnic differences are important in their own right – as distinct from income, region or other factors – with the performance of a Chinese child at age 11 higher than for a white child of the same age.
  • Over the last three decades, ethnic inequalities have altered radically but a similar level of unevenness remains. While Asian students born in 1970 performed poorly, Chinese, Indian and Bangladeshi born in 1997/98 were the best performers. White students have fallen from over-performers to under-performers on average over the three decades.




Nick Cleggs speech

Available on request via

About the Commission

The Social Market Foundation’s (SMF) Commission on Inequality in Education is an independent, cross-party initiative which is examining the causes and effects of inequality in education at primary and secondary levels in England and Wales.

The commission comprises three elected politicians from different parties – Nick Clegg (its chair), Conservative MP Suella Fernandes and Labour MP Stephen Kinnock – and two recognised education experts – Sam Freedman of TeachFirst and Rebecca Allen of Education Datalab. They will work closely with the SMF’s team of researchers.

It takes as its starting point the contention that undeserved inequalities are a barrier to social mobility and result in unfairness. It recognises that there is agreement across the political spectrum that we should be seeking to close the gap between the performance of disadvantaged children and their better of classmates.

We anticipate that the commission’s work will be supported by a number of funders. The commission retains full independence in relation to how it works and its conclusions. It will report its full findings early next year. More information can be found at:

The Commissioners

Rt Hon Nick Clegg MP (Chair of the commission)

Suella Fernandes MP (Conservative)

Stephen Kinnock MP (Labour)

Rebecca Allen (Director, Education Datalab)

Sam Freedman (Executive Director of Programmes, Teach First)



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