Educational inequalities in England and Wales

This briefing pack accompanies the launch of the SMF's new Commission on Inequality in Education and contains the initial findings of the commission.

This 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.

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.

Download The Report: PDF

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