As part of our Take Action’ Seminar Series we discussed educational inequality in the UK and how the LSE community can take action on the issue. If you weren’t there, don’t worry we’ve written a blog covering the key points made by our panel or LSE students can check out the recording on CareerHub.
We were joined by research economist, Andrew Eyles from LSE’s Centre for Economic Performance focusing on the Education and Skills program. Our next expert, was Jess Bond who is the Head of Widening Participation, LSE’s pre-entry outreach programme which provides free activities for students in London to help them progress to higher education.
From the charity sector, we were joined by Rebecca Waite, Volunteer Officer at ReachOut which is a mentoring charity who work with young people. Senior Education Worker, Ruby Tait, was also on the panel representing another one of our fantastic charities, IntoUniversity. Our final panellist was the President of LSESU Students for Children, Emily Tan.
The Context of Educational Inequality in the UK
Andrew opened the conversation by explaining that in the UK educational inequality is typically measured through the relationship between educational attainment and family background. Most data sets used for studying this area collect information on eligibility for free school meals compared with the education attainment gap. He went on to explain how the gap increases throughout the education system, with it only being 5 months in the first couple of years and by GCSE’s (15-16 years old) the attainment gap is 18 months.
Building on this, Jess explained how this attainment gap affects rate of university enrolment in these groups and how LSE has been working to close the attainment gap. Widening Participation work with students who are eligible for Pupil Premium (those who receive extra funding, like free school meals) to provide, with LSE students, tutoring and support to reduce the inequalities. As the gap grows through education, Widening Participation strives to reduce the barriers for students applying to LSE and to look at backgrounds in order to put their academic performance in the context of their learning environment.
What causes educational inequality in the UK?
It was clear that there are many interlinking factors that cause such inequality in education, including effects at the age of pre-school (age 3-4), Andrew explained. In some households’ children aren’t exposed to a higher level of vocabulary and there might be a different range or amount of books in some households. This then leads to those from better-off backgrounds going to schools with higher OFSTED (The Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills) rankings. In turn, the higher the ranking the higher the house prices in the local area and so on, creating self-selecting groups for school intake.
Within the work of LSE Widening Participation, Jess explained how some of their work is with Year 5 and 6 (age 9-11) to introduce the idea of university and build a better understanding of the benefits of enjoying learning. She also spoke about how the previous narrative that these groups of children didn’t have the aspirations to go to university and how this isn’t true. It’s actually about providing the tools and information to access university, in helping them to understand the structures around the application process.
How has educational inequality changed over the last decade?
Over the last decade, the education attainment gap has decreased slightly but it is quite hard to measure over a long period of time as the tests have changed, Andrew answered. He went on to clarify that most of this progress happened between 2010 and 2015, with no progress during the next 5 years and the obvious concern of the impact of lockdown. He mentioned factors that would increase the attainment gap, including wealthier families being able to provide students with computers, wealthier schools having more money to feed into lessons online and that parents are likely to have a higher education themselves, thus helping with tutoring.
In terms of the work that Widening Participation has been doing, the pandemic has also forced programmes to be online but they have changed their provisions by offering dongles and computers to students with access issues. Jess also spoke about a movement towards providing support for students wellbeing and mental health, explaining that the pandemic encouraged them to think about how wellbeing can effect their access to higher education.
For our charity partners who run in-school mentoring programs, the last year of lockdown has had obvious effects. Rebecca spoke about the difficulties of transferring to technology in the earlier months which resulted in the termination of projects before the end of the academic year. Ruby echoed the difficulty of transition, highlighting the technology gap forcing some to attend sessions on their phones or disruptive learning during to low quality of Wifi. Despite this, they have persevered to deliver online programmes but stressed the change in curriculum to focus on mental health and wellbeing.
What does LSE do in this area and what more can LSE do?
On top of the programmes previously explained by Jess, she highlighted the ambassador programme that aims to inspire students by putting them in contact with university students! Andrew echoed the importance of these types of programmes, but also explored the structural level changes that need to happen.
What can students do to take action against education inequality?
The most important thing that students can do is to look to understand the issue first, Emily answered. Like this talk, there’s lots of events that discuss the issue, a wealth of literature and even a society that focuses solely on this (LSESU Inequality in Education). From there, become your own advocate and educate other people on this issue. Emily then spoke about how important fundraising also it, especially as the charity sector has been hit hard by the pandemic.
Ruby and Rebecca both encouraged students to look out for volunteering opportunities where students can mentor or tutor school children. In fact, last year every mentoring pair in Into University applied and secured a place at university!
What are you feeling optimistic about looking forward?
To finish the seminar we asked each of our panellists what they’re feeling positive about when looking forward:
- Andrew focussed on how during the pandemic we’ve seen a real appetite for change in the world across different sectors, including the education sector. The pandemic has put lots of inequalities within the UK into the spotlight and change has happened before, so it can happen again.
- Jess looked at the move online as bearing some positives as it provides Widening Participation to recruit students outside of the south east of England.
- Having seen the most applications to be a mentor through ReachOut UK, Rebecca focussed on how she is optimistic about the potential to reach even more students and expanding their impact.
- Finally, Emily spoke about how the pandemic has brought a lot of inequalities to light and people are also aware of how it has also exacerbated many. But the increase in online activism and fundraising should make us hopeful about change! If you want to find out more about how you can get in touch with LSESU Students for Children society here.
The LSE Volunteer Centre would like to thank all those who joined us for this panel discussion and the speakers who gave their time to talk to us on educational inequality. If you have been inspired by this session or blog, check out CareerHub where we’ll be advertising volunteering opportunities within this area and access our support services, like booking an appointment with the Volunteer Centre Manager.