Report Overview

Written by Jane Waldfogel and Sean Reardon, this research brief summarises what we know about inequality of achievement in the UK and US, and identifies priorities and next steps for research. It looks at what we know and what we need to learn about the determinants, magnitude, and remedies for inequalities in achievement and related aspects of child development and well-being in the early years, school years, and post-secondary years. The research brief is based on a workshop hosted by the Sutton Trust in June, 2016. The workshop brought together 18 scholars from the UK, US, Canada, Japan, Ireland, Italy, and international organisations such as OECD and UNICEF.

Key Findings
  • Educational inequalities are large in the UK, and even larger in the US.
  • Research consistently find that gaps at school entry and in the later school years are largest in the US, followed by the UK, and significantly smaller in Canada and Australia.
  • The achievement gaps in both the US and UK are substantially larger today than they were for children born 40-60 years ago. In both countries, however, these gaps have narrowed modestly in recent years, but they are still much larger than they were in the past.
  • Efforts to reduce educational inequalities should focus on the early childhood years, to ensure that children arrive in school on a more equal footing, and on the primary or ‘K-12’ years, to ensure that schools reduce inequalities rather than exacerbate them.
  • Cross-national comparisons can be useful for understanding how different policies can help to reduce educational inequalities.
  1. Ensure all disadvantaged children can access the best early years education and care. Well qualified staff should be employed in all early years settings, particularly where they are working with disadvantaged children. Access to free child care places in the UK should be accompanied by easy access to proven parenting programmes which engage parents or carers and empower them to be their child’s first educator.
  2. Make improving the quality of classroom teaching the top priority in schools, with effective appraisals and a guaranteed entitlement to good quality training for all teachers. Improving teaching is recognised in international evidence as the most important way to improve schools. However, school leaders and teachers sometimes lack the most effective practical tools to help them improve this ‘core business’ of teaching practice. Every teacher should have a clear entitlement to effective professional development, based on evidence of what works. Teachers and policymakers need to identify the most effective forms of professional development and establish the best ways to share these findings. The College of Teaching could take ownership of this agenda on behalf of the profession.
  3. Greatly expand the number of good apprenticeships so that young people have real options at 18 and employers can develop the skilled workforce they need. Government, employers and other providers should work together to provide more advanced and higher apprenticeships. The government should set a target to ensure that the majority of new apprenticeships start at or develop to level 3 at minimum, and last at least two years. Intermediate apprenticeships (level 2) should provide automatic progression to advanced. Qualifications that only reach level 2 should not be regarded as apprenticeships unless the qualification will develop to level 3.