Brilliant Club

Five reasons why we need to address educational inequality

04 Sep 2023

We share five insights from the education sector which represent the current state of educational inequality in the UK, and demonstrate why widening participation is so important in the current climate.

In the advent of GCSE and A-level Results day, and as schools and universities gear up for the start of a brand-new term, charities like The Brilliant Club continue to tackle the lingering problem of educational disadvantage in the UK education system.

Students from the least advantaged backgrounds currently have a 2 in 100 chance of going to the most competitive universities, compared with 28 in 100 for the most advantaged (UCAS, 2023). This means that less advantaged students are nearly 14 times more likely to miss out on university study. And it’s only getting tougher.

Here are five reasons why The Brilliant Club believes that widening participation should remain high on the agenda for schools, universities, policymakers, and the third sector:

  1. More children than ever before are living below the poverty line and experiencing food insecurity at home and school, which is affecting their education and perhaps their future outcomes. A record number of 3 million pupils (around 1 in 4 pupils in England) are now eligible for Free School Meals – and this is a rising trend across every local authority.These statistics tell a bleak story about food insecurity and inequality in the education sector. Access to food is very important for a child’s educational development: being fed and comfortable in the classroom allows a child to concentrate, to participate in discussions, and provides them with the energy to think about what they might want for their future. As a sector, it is important to recognise the reasons why a child might be unfocused or disengaged, and work to make sure that hunger does not remain a factor in academic success.
  1. The attainment gap between the most and least advantaged students is at an all-time high. At KS2, students eligible for free school meals are now 7 months behind their more advantaged peers and by GCSEs, they are 18 months behind (NFER, 2022). In Wales, the attainment gap is even larger, and currently stands at about 22-23 months. But students who are experiencing persistent poverty experience a more serious attainment gap: in England the persistent disadvantage gap was equal to about 23 months of learning, while in Wales it was 29 months.[1]On average, students eligible for free school meals achieve more than three quarters of a grade lower per GCSE subject than students with the same ability from better off backgrounds. Since the pandemic, these gaps in attainment have been getting wider every year. That’s why our own programmes, such as The Scholars Programme and Make your Mark, work to build the confidence and skills to help young people to succeed at school and beyond.
  1. Even for the less advantaged students who do overcome the odds to get the grades, their self-belief is at an all-time low. After Covid, 21% of disadvantaged high attainers feel they don’t have much of a chance in life (The Sutton Trust, 2023). This underlines the importance of self-efficacy – a student’s belief that they have the capability and competence to pursue their ambitions – to later life outcomes. The same study, for example, asked less advantaged students with high grades what they think they are likely to be doing in two years’ time. When asked this, these students were 10% less likely to say that they thought they would be studying compared to their more advantaged peers.
  2. We also know that for those who have the grades, and want to go to university, cost is increasingly becoming a barrier. For example, 27% of pupils from working class families, and 39% of those who have used food banks in the last year, say they do not intend to apply to university because they can’t afford to go, compared to 19% of students with professional/managerial parents (COSMO Study, 2023).As well as this, 39% of pupils from families who had used a food bank in the last year said that they can’t afford to go to university, and less advantaged students who do want to go to university are more likely to live at home during their studies. (COVID Social Mobility and Opportunities Study 2023). With soaring rent and food prices, and as maintenance grants fail to keep up with inflation, many students are already reporting that are struggling to find a place to live for when they arrive at university in September.
  1. By 2030, UCAS are forecasting that there will be a million undergraduate applicants, up from 767,000 this year. This means that competition for limited university spaces will be fiercer than ever, and less advantaged students continue to be underrepresented at the most selective universities (UCAS, 2022).The rise in university applications might also present new challenges to the university community – if this means more students on campus, it will also mean more demand for accommodation and student support. As a sector, we need to make sure that less advantaged students feel that they belong on a university campus – that, despite resources being more difficult to access, they have the capacity to complete their studies. Our university transition programme, Join the Dots, works to build a network of support for less advantaged students who arrive at university to foster a sense of belonging and community for them on campus.

These are only five reasons why addressing educational disadvantage is so important. We are sure that you can think of more. As teachers revisit their stretched budgets this term, as children line up on playgrounds again, and as a new cohort of undergraduates arrive on university campuses, it is important that, as a sector, we keep these five reasons at the forefront of our minds as we work to tackle the inequalities young people face at school and beyond.

School, university, policy maker? Get in touch to discuss working with us:

[1] Pupils are classed as “disadvantaged” if they were eligible for free school meals in the past six years, and “persistently disadvantaged” if they were eligible for free school meals for 80 per cent of their time in education. (EPI, 2023)