I’ve called on the government to create a national strategy to tackle educational inequality, following the release of a report from the Russel Group universities, which found that class, race, and disability continue to affect people’s ability to attend and succeed at university.
The report found that financial concerns restrict some students’ higher education choices, while gaps in attainment at school mean that disadvantaged pupils fall behind early on, impacting on their education for years to come.
Students not classified as disadvantaged are over four times more likely to achieve grades ABB or better at A-level than those who are disadvantaged.
There is also a 13% gap between the likelihood of white students and students from black, Asian or minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds getting a first or upper second-class degree classification
In addition, the proportion of disabled students is 6% lower than the proportion of disabled working-age adults, and the number of mature students at UK universities has decreased by 46% over the past decade
There are also significant differences in access to higher education by region. 18-year-olds from London are 35% more likely than those from elsewhere in England to progress into higher education.
The Russell Group report argues that tackling these issues requires “a coherent national strategy” and “a step-change in government policy” in order “to support families from the early years onwards”.
Its findings do not take into account the coronavirus pandemic, which looks set to widen the ‘attainment gap’ between disadvantaged children and their better-off peers.
Earlier this month, Vicki Stewart, a senior official in the Department for Education, warned that this gap could widen by as much as 75 per cent as children miss school due to the coronavirus outbreak.
This report makes clear that there is still plenty of work to be done to ensure that people’s class, race, or disability do not prevent them from getting a good education and succeeding at university.
Coronavirus has shed a light on the many inequalities in our society and we know that school closures will have had a disproportionate impact on disadvantaged pupils. I raised this issue in my very first speech in the House of Commons, five years ago – how children born in Gleadless Valley could look down on two world-leading universities and know that their chances of getting in were limited by the postcode they were born in.
As the Russell Group has said, it falls on the government to take the lead in formulating a national strategy so that departments are working together to deal with these issues. Ministers must ensure that, following this crisis, all pupils get a top-quality education and the support they need to achieve their potential. When that potential is wasted, we all lose out.