Against a backdrop of poor productivity growth, severe skill shortages and increasing educational inequalities in the UK since the pandemic, investment in education and skills is essential. It requires policies that span from the early years right through to adulthood.
Inequalities in educational attainment are responsible for over half of the inequality in opportunities experienced in the UK. Consequently, there is a strong case for immediate investment in education and skills to reduce gaps in later life.
Even within the current economic climate, there are policies that can be put in place. At the Centre for Education Policy and Equalising Opportunities (CEPEO), based at University College London, we make the case for eight low-cost priorities and six more ambitious reforms to address long-standing inequalities, equalise opportunities and create a fairer, more productive society. As a team of economists, psychologists and education researchers, our recommendations are based on the most rigorous evidence available.
Against a backdrop of poor productivity growth, severe skill shortages and increasing educational inequalities since the Covid-19 pandemic, action must be taken to find, nurture and develop missing talent. Investment in education and skills should be at the heart of government policy – and this investment should span from the early years right through to adulthood.
Some policies that can be implemented are low-cost and readily attainable solutions, such as launching a new campaign to support children’s early skills in mathematics. Others are more ambitious reforms to tackle long-standing inequalities: for example, investing more in the recruitment and retention of high-quality teachers.
How can we equalise children’s early skills in mathematics?
One topical problem is how to improve children’s early maths skills. It is well established that children’s competency in maths in primary school is a powerful predictor of how well they do in the future. This applies both in terms of their future educational attainment and their achievement in the workplace.
Since the pandemic, children’s key stage 2 (end of primary school) maths attainment has fallen by 10%. Further, the gap between disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged pupils has grown for the first time since 2012.
Figure 1: Average attainment by KS2 subject, 2019 versus 2022
Source: UK Government
We do not see the same patterns for reading, where skills have held up. This may because parents are more likely to engage with children’s reading activities at home than they are with maths activities. Research suggests that this may be related to low levels of parental confidence in maths.
Our first policy priority then is to launch a new campaign to support parental engagement with children’s early maths skills. This is a low-cost, readily attainable solution that could make a real difference to early skill formation, and help to close the gaps in skills by socio-economic status that have become so concerning since the pandemic.
How can we ensure that childcare is accessible to all families, not just the better-off?
Another highly topical area is childcare. There are many reasons for governments to subsidise childcare, including as a way to encourage more women into work and to allow them to work longer hours.
But childcare is also about the development of children’s skills: early skill formation is crucial to later development of skills. Worryingly, research shows that there are already large gaps in development between children from richer and poorer families by the time they start school, and that these widen over time.
Figure 2: Inequalities in cognitive development and socio-economic difficulties, MCS age 3
These gaps are in part driven by differences in the use of early childhood education and care. As a result, investment in high-quality provision that is accessible to all young children is vital.
The Spring Budget 2023 announced the government’s plans to expand the 30 hours offer to children from nine months old, addressing the pressing issue of affordability. This is likely to reduce the cost of care substantially for eligible families and may encourage more mothers to work or to work longer hours.
This is welcome, but it is targeted at relatively better-off working families – those parents earning at least the equivalent of working 16 hours a week at minimum wage. Without helping lower-income families to access childcare, this system risks widening inequalities in child development.
There is also a real threat to the sustainability of childcare provision if the ‘free’ hours are not funded appropriately. Previously, providers could cross-subsidise free hours for older children by charging more for younger children. The expansion of the offer to younger children removes this option, raising significant questions about financial viability for providers.
We therefore call for ensuring access to high-quality childcare provision for children from disadvantaged backgrounds.
How serious is the problem of pupil absences, and what can be done?
The issue of absenteeism from school is being increasingly discussed. Rates of persistent absence have grown since the pandemic, particularly in secondary schools. Rates also vary by socio-economic background, with persistent absence rates much higher among pupils who are eligible for free school meals. Absenteeism is a serious concern: evidence suggests that persistent absences are associated with a reduction in academic attainment and a drop in lifetime earnings of 1-2%.
Harnessing low-cost technology to improve communication with parents is an inexpensive and effective intervention for addressing this issue. Evidence shows that this could help to improve attendance around the margins.
Reasons for absence are poorly understood and may be the result of a myriad of problems, such as pupils failing to re-engage with school following long periods of pandemic closures. But as suggested in our recent analysis from our Covid Social Mobility and Opportunities (COSMO) study, the cost of living crisis is also putting more pressure on families, which may mean that children are having to help out more at home.
As a result, any proposal should also be complemented with more detailed investigation to understand the wide range of issues underlying persistent absences.
How can we recruit more high-quality teachers?
Teachers are the most effective tool that we have for improving pupils’ attainment. Research shows that effective teachers improve pupils’ achievement, help to close the gap in outcomes between poorer and richer pupils, and increase pupils’ later life earnings. Effective teachers are crucial to ensuring a more equal society.
But England has a severe teacher recruitment shortage across most subjects, according to the latest report from the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER). This is particularly acute in the sciences, maths, computing and modern foreign languages. Retention bonus payments have been shown to have a large impact on retention and so could be an effective means of recruiting more teachers.
There needs to be more investment in the recruitment and retention of high-quality teachers, and for the government to increase teachers’ starting pay to £30,000 (planned for September 2023) as soon as possible.
How can we make apprenticeships more accessible to those young people who need them most?
Apprenticeships are increasingly seen as a highly valuable option, as evidenced by the expansion of the UCAS system for tertiary education applications to include these as an option for applicants. But the apprenticeship levy, the key government lever for supporting apprenticeships, has come under criticism. This is due to it being used predominantly as a way to train existing staff – often those well above school-leaving age – rather than offering opportunities for new entrants.
A quick fix for this would be to reform the apprenticeship levy to ring-fence some proportion to be accessed by young entrants to ensure that these qualifications are a gateway to skilled employment for young people.
How can we ensure more young people benefit from further education?
The final priority we wish to highlight is further education (FE). FE colleges play a crucial role in delivering skills to local areas, and there are positive associations between FE college attendance and later employment, earnings and ‘second-chance’ education.
The government’s FE white paper promised much in terms of making FE a real alternative to higher education. But the numbers contradict this: FE budgets have fallen dramatically in the past decade, with spending per student 14% lower in 2019/20 compared with 2010/11. This has led to falling learning hours and large increases in average class sizes.
The strain on this sector is likely to have a disproportionate impact on young people, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, who tend to use FE more. Greater investment in these vital institutions is required to ensure that young people who are not following the traditional post-16 academic route have access to high-quality alternatives and ultimately gain the skills required for rewarding careers.
This article has highlighted a selection of policy priorities designed to equalise opportunities through investment in education and skills. A more detailed report, which sets out eight low-cost, ‘oven-ready’ policies, and six more ambitious reforms, is available here. The full report contains much more detail on the research evidence behind these choices.
Where can I find out more?
- CEPEO evidence-based policy priorities.
- Education inequalities: The Institute for Fiscal Studies Deaton Review.
- Inequalities in education, and attainment gaps: Report by Abbi Hobbs and Natasha Mutebi for the UK Parliament.
Who are experts on this question?
- Lindsey Macmillan
- Gill Wyness
- Sandra McNally
- Simon Burgess