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Examining inequality

GCSE and A-level results released this week were record-breaking. Missed schooling and changes to assessments may have made grade inflation inevitable, but the widening of existing inequalities was not.

Newsletter from 13 August 2021.

Price inflation has been a growing concern for economists, investors and policy-makers this year. But since the government’s announcement in February that traditional secondary school examinations would be replaced by teacher-assessed grades (for the second year running), people working in schools, colleges and universities have been worried about a different kind of inflation.

The extent of grade inflation was revealed this week as pupils in England, Wales and Northern Ireland received their GCSE and A-level results. 44.8% of A-level entries were awarded A or A* and 28.9% of GCSEs were graded 7/A or above. As Steven Proud (University of Bristol) explains, the increase in achievement, particularly at the upper end of the distribution, is unsurprising for a number of reasons. Teacher-assessed grades are likely to be higher as they remove some of the pressures and negative effects associated with performing on a single day in an exam. They may also be influenced by schools’ incentives to improve key league table metrics.

Steven’s analysis also reveals a starkly uneven distribution of grades between different types of schools and students. Private schools started from a higher base level of grades at A or above (44% in 2019 versus 20% in comprehensives), and also enjoyed a larger absolute increase of 9.3 percentage points compared with last year. The corresponding figures for academies and state comprehensives were 5.7 and 6.2 percentage points, respectively.

Ethnic disparities in A-level grades achieved within schools do not appear to have increased this year (Ofqual, 2021), but inequality between socioeconomic groups is accelerating. In England, the percentage point penalty at GCSE for students on free school meals grew to 17.9, up from 13.5 in 2019. As Sir Peter Lampl, Chair of the Sutton Trust argues, the pandemic has compounded longstanding inequalities in disadvantaged students’ access to technology and textbooks.

Enforced absence

Inequality in access to educational resources during the pandemic has been a global problem. In another Economics Observatory piece this week, Hans Henrik Sievertsen (University of Bristol) focused on how school closures have affected children around the world, concluding that poorer countries’ education systems have been more severely affected.

The average duration of full or partial school closures is 39 weeks, but as shown in Figure 1 below, certain areas have endured much longer closures – for example the Americas and South Asia. Countries also differ in their split between full (nation-wide shutdowns) and partial (regional shutdowns/reductions in-person schooling) closures.

Hans shows that richer countries tend to have more weeks of partial rather than full school closures. The average duration of full school closures is ‘only’ seven weeks in Europe and North America, which is nearly four times lower than in Latin America. This means cross-country inequality may increase in the long run. Countries that are already behind in terms of schooling have been more affected by full closures. This suggests learning losses are higher, and will be harder to recover, in countries with fewer resources to begin with. 

Figure 4: Map of Covid-induced partial and full school closures, March 2020 to May 2021

Source: UNESCO. Note: Grey = no data

From A-levels to Levelling Up

Growing educational inequality is present at both the national and regional level. In England, pupils in London achieved the best GCSE results and the biggest improvement, while Yorkshire and the Humber performed worst. This is a reminder of the need for more meaningful progress in reducing regional disparities – or levelling up.

One measure of where levelling up funds are most needed was discussed in an Observatory article on Monday. Using pre-Covid deprivation metrics and a new index of pandemic impact, John Gathergood (Nottingham), Benedict Guttman-Kenney (Chicago Booth), Fabian Gunzinger (Warwick Business School), Sarah Hall (Nottingham), Benjamin Lucas (Nottingham), Paul Mizen (Nottingham), Edika Quispe-Torreblanca (Saïd Business School, Oxford), Neil Stewart (Warwick Business School) and Arif Sulistiono (Nottingham) find that places including Blackpool, Newham and Great Yarmouth should be the highest priorities for support.

In Figure 2 below, these places are in the bottom left quadrant, meaning that pre-existing and long-term deprivation there has been aggravated by the shock of Covid-19.

Figure 2: Correlations between 2019 IMD scores and Index of Covid-19 Economic Impact

Source: Author calculations derived from ONS, Experian, Fable Data, Huq, Decision Maker Panel, MHCLG English IMD (2019) and HM Treasury Levelling Up Fund priority categories. Note: Each dot is a local authority in England (311 in total). Interactive: click on each icon in the chart legend to change the display.

The authors identify two key challenges for policy-makers: targeting funds at similar but geographically diverse local areas rather than regions, while also tending to the economic wounds of Covid-19.

Staying effective

The UK’s Covid-19 vaccination programme has been delivered at pace, with more than three quarters of adults now fully vaccinated. But with concerns about breakthrough infections (cases among those who are fully vaccinated), it seems timely to revisit Debopam Bhattacharya’s article from January 2021 about the specific meaning of vaccine effectiveness.

When Pfizer-BioNTech reported their vaccine was 95% effective in November 2020, this proportional reduction of disease in the vaccinated group exceeded all expectations. But this was before the alpha (and then delta) variants had become the dominant form of the virus. The slowing of the vaccination programme has coincided with more reports of breakthrough infections, and between 1 February and 19 July, Public Health England (PHE) data show that 49% of people who died within 28 days of a positive test for the delta variant had had both doses.

Research from around the world suggests that vaccine efficacy against symptomatic infection by the delta variant is lower, but the jabs still offer good protection. PHE data shows that all three vaccines used in the UK reduce the risk of death by over 85%, regardless of variant. Which, all things considered, is a good reason to be grateful on this unlucky Friday 13th.

Our newsletter will now take a short, two-week break but will be back on 3 September. Here’s to some more good weather over the last couple of weeks in August.

Observatory news

  • Tickets are now on sale for the morning events at the Talking Economics conference, which will take place on 17-19 November 2021 in Bristol. These include two complimentary afternoon sessions. Delegates will hear from speakers including Chris Giles who is hosting a panel event on Health and Economics, Diane Coyle on the climate crisis and Sarah O’Connor leading a discussion about inequality.
  • The new ECO Instagram is up and running with a selection of our latest articles in brief, as well as more eclectic topics – see our recent post on stablecoins. To learn more about the interactive data visualisation in the levelling up piece described above, head over to our Twitter.
Author: Ben Pimley
Picture by Sagar Patil on Unsplash


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