Each year the United Nations publishes its Human Development Report. According to the 1998 report, Britain is one of the most unequal and poverty-stricken of the developed countries, standing fifteenth in a list of seventeen (Guardian, 9 September 1998). Wealth and income have always been very unequally distributed in Britain, but the gap has widened over the past twenty years.
Economic inequality has profound effects on education. There is a close correlation between how well off school students’ families are and how well they do in the school system. Of course, some students from working-class backgrounds do well, and some students from middle- and upper-class backgrounds do badly (a point I will return to), but the overall pattern is very clear. At primary school, there is a strong correlation between Key Stage 2 Standard Attainment Targets (SATs) scores and the proportion of students eligible for free school meals (a commonly used indicator of family socio-economic status). The top ten local education authorities (LEAs) have on average 10 per cent of children eligible for free school meals, the lowest ten have an average of 51 per cent (Times Educational Supplement, 14 February 1997). Research by Ian McCallum into KS2 English, maths and science in London LEAs (reported in the TES, 18 April 1997) confirms that they are strongly influenced by social class. Average test scores range from Richmond, the wealthiest borough in London, at the top with over 220, to Hackney, the most deprived, with less than 120. McCallum’s most recent research, into 5,000 students from age four through primary school confirms the crucial importance of social class in educational achievement (TES, 25 September 1998). McCallum has also demonstrated the strength of the relationship between social class and GCSE performance, using data comparing not only LEAs but individual students (Education, 19 February 1996). In a recent review of the evidence, Mortimore and Whitty (1997, p. 47) conclude that ‘There remains a strong negative correlation between most measures of social disadvantage and school achievement, as even a cursory glance at the league tables of school by school results demonstrates.’
Just as economic inequality has widened in recent years, so has educational inequality: ‘The flip side to the ever-rising proportion of 16-year-olds achieving GCSE grades A-C is that the number leaving school with no qualifications whatsoever is increasing at a faster rate’ (TES, 17 October 1997).