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It is often assumed that education is an equal experience for all students in the UK, with “free schools”, a national curriculum, educational policies (and much more) to support all pupils, regardless of their socioeconomic status and ethnicity. This discourse revolves around the idea that education and qualifications are the ultimate chance for social mobility which is often too optimistic and heightened by heuristic bias. This reflects a quick judgment based on our own lived experiences, encouraging a narrative that merit is achieved through hard work and when pupils underperform, it is solely due to bad work ethic and the values associated with their class and/or ethnicity.
This blame is far too simple as an explanation for this underperformance. Policies pushing for a relevant curriculum, raising aspirations and pupil premium are methods used to close the gap but
it is argued that a structural effort is required to address the root causes of educational inequalities.
Ultimately, there is a significant disparity in attainment, with wealthier children consistently outperforming the disadvantaged students. Inevitably, COVID-19-related disruptions have increased this polarisation.
Inequalities in education are not an outcome of COVID-19 itself, rather they have been heightened by it.
Despite only 6% of students being privately educated in the UK, they make up 55% of the students at Russell Group universities.
Furthermore, 34% of pupils eligible for free school meals achieved 5 A*- C GCSE’s, compared to 61% of students who were not on free school meals. In 2019, 26.5% of pupils in state-funded schools were disadvantaged and achieved lower marks than their better-off counterparts. These educational inequalities are among the highest in the UK out of all high-income countries, even before the pandemic. Ultimately, it is the underprivileged and minority students that fall victim to this.
“The class of 2020” is a phrase associated with a sense of misfortune, an “unlucky but resilient” cohort who began the much needed conversation around educational inequality. However, bringing intersectionality to this is imperative, the most detrimental impact has been to those of minority and disadvantaged backgrounds, who may already face issues such as language barriers, teacher representation, less parental support, food insecurity, incongruency with curriculum and much more.
This is then combined with issues such as the lack of resources for online learning like a computer or tablet, as well as internet connection. Students are often sharing their devices with siblings or are having to home-school younger siblings.
With teenage mental health being an ongoing and neglected issue for years, the conversation around how school and COVID-19 have a direct impact on these student populations needs to be discussed.
Unsurprisingly, 97% of private school children have access to a computer, compared to 1 in 5 of students on free school meals. State schools have large class sizes of around 30 pupils, with each teacher delivering around 20 lessons per week, it simply is not feasible for all students to receive 1-1 feedback for every single remote lesson. Compared to private school class sizes which are often much smaller, students are able to receive more frequent feedback on work.
However, it is not just differences between different types of schools that widen the attainment gap, there are also many factors within a school. Whilst some students are self-isolating, other students are receiving face-to-face lessons. Trust and comfort is built on
consistency within education, for some pupils, this is the only form of consistency they have in their lives, which has further implications on mental health.
There have been ongoing debates around education around schools reopening, exam cancellations, assessments and much more. Yet, the conversation around teenage mental health & well-being, performance and the impact of all of this on widening the gap between social class and educational achievement seems to have endured a deafening silence in the media.
Disclaimer: the views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Identity International.
Dobson-Perez, C., 2021. Social class – is education unequal? | Institute of Continuing Education (ICE). [online] Ice.cam.ac.uk. Available at: <https://www.ice.cam.ac.uk/about-us/news/social-class-education-unequal> [Accessed 3 April 2021].
Dmu.ac.uk. 2021. Inequality faced by BME students and staff in HE is laid bare. [online] Available at: <https://www.dmu.ac.uk/about-dmu/news/2019/march/inequality-faced-by-bme-students-and-staff-in-he-is-laid-bare.aspx> [Accessed 3 April 2021].
GOV.UK. 2021. Ethnic, socio-economic and sex inequalities in educational achievement at age 16, by Professor Steve Strand. [online] Available at: <https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-report-of-the-commission-on-race-and-ethnic-disparities-supporting-research/ethnic-socio-economic-and-sex-inequalities-in-educational-achievement-at-age-16-by-professor-steve-strand> [Accessed 8 April 2021].
Lambeth.gov.uk. 2021. [online] Available at: <https://www.lambeth.gov.uk/rsu/sites/www.lambeth.gov.uk.rsu/files/narrowing_the_achievement_gap_for_disadvantaged_pupils_2018.pdf> [Accessed 3 April 2021].
Ncfe.org.uk. 2021. COVID-19 and the increase of inequality of access to high quality education. [online] Available at: <https://www.ncfe.org.uk/blog/covid-19-and-the-increase-of-inequality-of-access-to-high-quality-education> [Accessed 3 April 2021].