Education and skills contribute to differences in earnings and opportunities across generations, both at the national level and between local authorities in England. Targeted policies can help to reduce the gaps between individuals and contribute to efforts to level up the UK economy.
The UK is very unequal, in terms of both outcomes and opportunities. Among developed nations, it has one of the highest rates of income inequality – unequal outcomes – and one of the lowest rates of intergenerational mobility (unequal opportunities).
This is illustrated in the Great Gatsby Curve, a coinage of the late, great economist and US presidential adviser Alan Krueger, based on work by Miles Corak, which highlights how greater inequality is associated with less mobility across generations (see Figure 1).
Figure 1: The Great Gatsby curve
Source: Corak, 2013
Based on this evidence, for the past few decades, successive governments have been focused on improving social mobility, equalising opportunities or, more recently, levelling up. But these things are notoriously hard to measure, not least because policies enacted today can take decades to come to fruition in terms of future changes in inequality.
Research looking at human capital emphasises the importance of education and skills in driving productivity, wages and economic growth. Those that invest in education and training are more likely to have higher skill levels and be more productive, which means that they can earn higher wages.
Education and skills have also been shown to play a direct role in inequality, contributing to differences in earnings and opportunities across generations, both at the national level and across local authorities in England.
Studies show that differences in skills can explain at least a third of the variation in earnings within countries. Further, education and skills can account for 60-80% of the transmission of income across generations – or unequal opportunities.
Trends in inequalities in education and skills can therefore give us some useful insight into future patterns of social mobility. For example, given the improvements in the educational performance of pupils in London seen over the last two decades, it is little surprise that the capital now appears to be one of the most mobile areas in the country in terms of labour market outcomes.
What do recent trends in educational inequalities tell us about progress with levelling up?
The recent evidence on levelling up doesn’t look good. Trends in educational attainment across regions show that educational inequalities are widening across places. London continued to pull away from other regions across primary school, GCSE and A-level achievement in 2022 compared with 2019, before the Covid-19 pandemic.
While attainment fell everywhere due to the impact of the pandemic and learning losses, key stage 2 results fell by six percentage points (ppts) in London compared with eight in the North West. Similarly, 65% of London pupils achieved the expected standard in reading, writing and maths in 2022, compared with 57% in the North West, and 56% in Yorkshire and Humber, and the East (Figure 2).
Figure 2: Map of England by key stage 2 attainment
Source: Department for Education, 2022
At key stage 4, 32.6% of GCSE entries were awarded grade seven or above in London in 2022. In the North East, the figure was 22.4%, a difference of 10.2 ppts. In 2019, the corresponding gap was 9.3 ppts.
Similarly, at A-level, the percentage of pupils achieving an A grade was 39% in London, compared with 30.8% in the North East, a gap of 8.2 ppts in 2022, relative to 3.9 ppts in 2019.
There are two points to make about this. First, the fact that attainment fell everywhere is really bad news for future productivity. If pupils are progressing with less knowledge than they had previously, they have fewer of the building blocks needed for their next stages of learning – a less solid foundation to build on moving forward. This could have very serious consequences for future labour market productivity – estimates on the cost of this ‘learning loss’ range from billions to trillions of pounds. Second, the widening of these gaps is the opposite of what we want to be seeing if we are to level up or minimise the differences between regions of the UK. These widening educational inequalities are likely to translate, in part, into widening labour market earnings and incomes unless action is taken to address the disparities.
Is there scope for this to improve?
The government has committed to a range of policies to level up the economy, including 55 new educational investment areas (EIAs), provision of high-quality online curriculum through Oak National Academy and setting the target of 90% of primary school children achieving expected standards in reading, writing and maths by 2030. There is also talk of an overhaul of funding and governance in colleges, a skills audit, and local skill improvement plans to target specific regional needs.
Yet looking forward, it is hard to see how this picture will improve against a backdrop of increasingly squeezed school budgets. Even before the pandemic, work by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) showed that the gap in funding between state and private schools has grown steadily since 2010 (see Figure 3).
Figure 3: State school spending per pupil vs average private school fees over time (2021–22 prices)
Indeed, spending per pupil in state schools declined by 9% in real terms between 2019 and 2020. This has disproportionately hit schools serving more deprived pupils and further education colleges.
Alongside the pressure of learning losses from the pandemic, the cost of living crisis and rising teachers’ wages to be paid out of existing budgets, it is hard to see how the education sector will be able to offer the support needed, particularly for the most deprived pupils.
Where can I find out more?
- The long shadow of deprivation – differences in opportunities across England: Report by the Social Mobility Commission.
- Does education raise people’s productivity or does it just signal their existing ability? Briefing note by Gill Wyness, Lindsey Macmillan and Jake Anders.
- The growing gap between state school and private school spending: IFS report by Luke Sibieta.
- The economic impacts of learning loss: OECD article by Eric Hanushek and Ludger Woessmann.
Who are experts on this question?
- Lindsey Macmillan
- Simon Burgess
- Gill Wyness