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How could the UK’s education system be reformed to equalise opportunities?

Reforms to the admissions procedures for UK schools and universities would make a big difference to many young people’s life chances.

Nine out of ten respondents to a recent UK poll by More in Common for the Sutton Trust agreed that it is important for young people to have equal opportunities, regardless of their background.

While recent YouGov polling indicates that education is not top of all voters’ list of priorities in the 2024 general election, it is a priority among Labour voters. Within this group, it ranks seventh in terms of what they see as the most important issues in deciding their vote.

Indeed, education and breaking down barriers to opportunity are one of the five missions that were launched by Labour in the run-up to the election being called. But what education policies could be most effective in equalising opportunities?

Inequalities start early and compound across childhood and beyond. Priorities to reform the UK education system to boost the life chances of those from disadvantaged backgrounds must therefore span early years, through school, tertiary education and into the labour market.

For changes to be enacted in the current fiscal climate, they need to be low-cost and easily achievable. But to create meaningful change, more ambitious reforms to tackle the huge structural inequalities in the UK system are required too.

At the Centre for Education Policy and Equalising Opportunities (CEPEO) at University College London, we have proposed eight low-cost changes and six more ambitious reforms, all of which are evidence-based. Here we highlight two: reforming admissions processes for schools and universities to equalise young people’s educational opportunities.

Reforming school admissions

Pupils from more advantaged backgrounds disproportionately attend schools that get better test scores, with significant implications for their prospects. In London, pupils eligible for free school meals (FSM) attend, on average, schools where 59% of pupils achieve five or more passes at GCSE, compared with 65% for non-FSM pupils. The gap is wider still outside London.

These differences are mainly driven by affluent families living closer (on average) to good schools, combined with admissions rules that prioritise distance from applicants’ homes. Disparities in school quality mean that this limits the ability of some pupils – disproportionately from less advantaged backgrounds – to access the best school to which they could reasonably travel.

Grammar schools in some parts of the country are another feature of the school admissions system that disrupts fair access to high-quality schools for all pupils. They are highly socially selective: just 6% of pupils from the most deprived backgrounds attend a grammar school. Only in the top 10% of the socio-economic status distribution do more than half of children and young people attend a grammar school.

This is not just because of a correlation between academic attainment and socio-economic status. Pupils with equal attainment in tests taken at the end of key stage two (in the same school year as grammar school entry tests) are much more likely to go on to attend a grammar school if they are from advantaged backgrounds. And if you live in a grammar school area, then missing out on a place matters for your long-term life chances. High-attaining pupils who miss out are less likely to go on to university.

Some have raised the potential implications of Labour’s proposed introduction of VAT on private school fees for disadvantaged pupils’ opportunities to attend sought-after state schools. Specifically, they predict a large exodus of pupils from private schools to state schools that could crowd out disadvantaged pupils.

This is despite little decline in private school attendance in the face of a tripling of real-terms fees since the 1980s, increasing concentration of participation among those with high incomes, and the importance of non-financial factors in predicting whether those with high incomes choose for their children to attend a private school.

Taken together, these factors seem likely to explain the low behavioural response to VAT on fees that is predicted by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS). Their tentative upper estimate implies a 7% fall in private school attendance, equating to less than a one percentage point drop in terms of the share of the overall school population. It is unlikely that this would cause the negative consequences for disadvantaged pupils’ opportunities that have been mooted.

Post-qualification university admissions

The UK is the only country in the world where young people apply to university before receiving their end-of-school exam results. Instead, pupils apply with grades predicted by their teachers.

But these predicted grades are inaccurate. Only 16% of applicants achieve the A-level grades that were predicted for them, while 75% are over-predicted. What’s more, among equally high-attaining pupils, those from disadvantaged backgrounds receive less generous predictions. Even when relying on advanced statistical methods, it is only possible to predict the grades of one in four pupils accurately from their attainment in previous years. So teachers are not to blame for inaccuracies in predicted grades – this is an impossible task, and one that is not a good use of their limited time.

These systematic errors in predicted grades are important. Unsurprisingly, there are consequences for course application decisions when high-attaining disadvantaged pupils receive less generous predictions than their more advantaged counterparts. These pupils are more likely to enter less selective courses, given their grades, leading to higher chances of dropping out, receiving a lower-class degree, and earning less in the future.

The alternative is a post-qualification application (PQA) system, which would enable young people to make apply to universities after receiving their A-level results. This system – which could be moved to with minimal disruption – would be more accurate and fairer. It would also put the UK in line with the rest of the world in allowing young people to make these life-changing application decisions based on full information.

The path forward

Reforms to both school and university admissions would make a significant difference in equalising young people’s opportunities to get the best possible education and the right start in life.

Reducing the importance of distance to school and, hence, the link between family income and school attended could make a significant difference to life chances. Even better, requiring schools to prioritise applicants who are eligible for the pupil premium would help to level this aspect of the educational playing field.

Likewise, the achievable aim of a PQA system for university would ensure that young people have full information on their academic achievements before making life-changing decisions. Such a system would ensure that applications are assessed using pupils’ actual achievements.

These proposals are part of CEPEO’s wider programme of policy priorities, all of which offer evidence-led, practical steps to move towards a society of more equal opportunities. Both of these aspects of admissions reform are important elements of an agenda to create a more equitable society through education policy.

Where can I find out more?

Who are experts on this question?

  • Jake Anders
  • Lindsey Macmillan
  • Gill Wyness
  • Simon Burgess
  • Sandra McNally
Authors: Lindsey Macmillan, Jake Anders and Gill Wyness
Image: Antonio_Diaz for iStock
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