Rising Inequality

Rising Inequality

At the end of 2015, the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission (SMCPC) published a report examining the position of social mobility within the UK. The Commission found that Britain has lower social mobility levels than most comparable countries and income inequality has increased significantly since 1979 . The Commission also found that those who claim free school meals are only half as likely to get five good (A*-C grade) GCSEs as their better-off peers with fewer than one in six gaining two or more A-levels. Children supported by the Pupil Premium are also significantly less likely to attend university. The SMCPC report also found that there is a social divide between young people who go onto university and those who do not, with these non-graduates, who tend to come from low income backgrounds, ending up in low-progression careers. Similarly, the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills reports a 17% gap between those who claim free school meals and those who do not, when it comes to attending higher education nationally. The government report also suggests that independent schools and state selective schools have a much higher percentage of children accessing the most selective higher education institutions than non-selective state schools .  Unsurprisingly this translates to a differential in income levels in later life, with more than two-thirds of the job vacancies in elite legal and city firms being filled by university graduates who have been educated in private or grammar schools. This is supported by recent research from the education charity the Sutton Trust which found that elite professions were dominated by those who had either been educated privately or at grammar schools . The research showed that only 16% of Britain’s senior doctors and one in 10 of its leading barristers were educated at state comprehensive schools. Among judges in the High Court and Court of Appeal, the proportion was even smaller: 5% had attended a comprehensive, compared with the 21% who had gone to selective schools and the 74% who had been educated privately. In the military, only 12% of the army’s two-star generals and the equivalent ranks in the Royal Navy and the RAF had attended a comprehensive; among prominent journalists only 19%; among award-winning actors only 23%. Such inequality is mirrored in elite sport, where at the 2016 Rio Olympics 30% of all British medals were awarded to athletes that had attended private fee-paying schools. Currently 90% of the school-age population go to comprehensives and only 5% to fee-paying schools, and so the cross-cultural dominance of the privately educated represents a grossly disproportionate presence inside Britain’s elite institutions.

“Lifespan gap between rich
poor is widening for the
first time since the 1870’s.”
City University (Apr 2016)

A recent report by the Department for Education showed that the percentage of state-educated pupils going on to universities and colleges in 2013/14 fell to 62%, from 66% in the previous year. This reduction is in light of recent research from the think tank the Resolution Foundation which reported that Millennials are now at risk of becoming the first ever generation to record lower lifetime earnings than their predecessors, prompting Paul Johnson, Director of the Institute of Fiscal Studies, to comment that he ‘…fear[s] such intergenerational inequality w[ill] fuel wider inequality in society because youngsters with rich parents w[ill] retain such an unfair advantage in the important years of early adulthood’. Wider intergenerational inequality is being fuelled by greater marketisation of the education sector with the existence of ‘private education by proxy’ where a favourable Ofsted rating can lead to inflation in local house prices, with the segregation of those not able to keep up. In a report presented to the Royal Economics Society, Dr. Iftikhar Hussain of Sussex University demonstrated the link between small changes in school ratings and house prices: the average house price in the UK is at almost £300k, meaning that a one-point improved Ofsted grade for a comprehensive primary school puts typically £15,000 on the value of houses in the catchment area, with richer households more willing and able to pay for higher quality schools. Private education by proxy extends into grammar schools: a 2013 study in south-east England by the Institute of Education found that nearly three quarters of first year grammar school pupils had been privately tutored for their entrance test, costing at least, £25 per hour with the Sutton Trust now estimating the British tuition market to be worth some £2bn a year.

Since the mid-1940s inequality and capital accumulation have risen across the developed world. This increasing global rise in general inequality is mirrored by increasing inequality in educational opportunity; no more clearly is this demonstrated than in the disparity of provision between private and state education within the UK.

The deliberate introduction of market forces into the education system through greater parental choice, selection by ability, free schools and multi-academy mergers and acquisitions; means that schools which struggle to attract pupils pay the price with reduced funding. Although market forces are supposed to increase attainment standards, in practice it benefits higher socio-economic groups at the expense of others.  In the same way, market forces predict that some schools may find themselves in collaborative isolation as resource distribution is skewed amongst competitors. Collaboration is vital for sharing the best practices, local capacity building, and in developing a wider philosophy of a self-improving school-led system which is united around a common purpose. Evidence suggests that increased choice and competition has not led to higher educational standards.

r > g

The world-renowned economist and Centennial Professor at the LSE’s International Inequalities Institute, Thomas Piketty, argues that, gross inequality arises when the rate of return on capital (r) is greater than the rate of economic growth (g) over the long term. The result is an ever-greater concentration of wealth in the hands of the few. If we analyse this from the perspective of a marketised education system which favours higher socioeconomic classes, then reducing the gap in life opportunity between ‘the rich and the rest’ is set to become one of our greatest social challenges. Applying the principles of Piketty’s equation to education suggests we have system where market forces determine that the rate of return on privately held educational capital will always be greater than the rate of growth of social opportunity. The implications of this are profound, as it means that societies leaders will be increasingly and forever disconnected from the majority of the population – as wealth and opportunity become ever more concentrated in the hands of the few. The consequences of this are currently being felt across Europe and the Atlantic with the rise of populist, anti-establishment, political movements.

In a survey carried out by the Schools, Students and Teachers Network and Arcadis some 84% of publicly funded schools are either currently running a budget deficit or expect to have one within the next three years . The findings form part of a report looking at how schools have been forced to change or adapt working practices to overcome funding pressures. Among the money-saving strategies being employed by schools, the survey finds that increasing class sizes and pupil-to-staff ratios are the most common, with some schools using Skype to deliver lessons in order to share teaching staff. Other schools are cutting costs by reducing the number of qualified teachers and increasing the number of unqualified teaching staff. State schools have been facing rising costs for some time, including increased employee pension contributions, inflation, and the government’s one per cent pay award to teaching staff. In April 2016, the Institute of Fiscal Studies reported that schools are facing the most severe budget cuts since the 1970s and predicted reductions of at least seven per cent in per-pupil funding by 2020 . Our state schools are dealing with this while simultaneously undergoing pressure to improve narrowly defined pupil outcomes, implement extensive curriculum reform, and cope with a crisis in recruitment. Perhaps though, the biggest challenge amongst these pressures is achieving clarity of what it is we are trying to achieve with our education system.