An unfair start in the UK

Published on: 
02 November 2018
Written by: 

Gill Main
Associate Professor, University of Leeds

“I want Britain to be the world’s great meritocracy – a country where everyone has a fair chance to go as far as their talent and their hard work will allow… And I want Britain to be a place where advantage is based on merit not privilege; where it’s your talent and hard work that matter, not where you were born, who your parents are or what your accent sounds like.”

Theresa May, speech delivered September 2016

“In the world’s richest countries, some children do worse at school than others because of circumstances beyond their control, such as where they were born, the language they speak, or their parents’ occupations. These children enter the education system at a disadvantage and can drop further behind if educational policies and practices reinforce rather than reduce the gap between them and their peers. These types of inequality are unjust. Not all children have an equal opportunity to reach their full potential, to pursue their interests and to develop their talents and skills”

UNICEF Report Card 15, October 2018

Social mobility is often promoted as a solution to perceived inequities in society. Specifically, it is often positioned by politicians as the solution to child poverty – as evidenced by the Social Mobility Commission, which started life as the Child Poverty and Social Mobility Commission but through various iterations has seen ‘child poverty’ removed from its remit entirely. Theresa May’s speech, quoted above, highlighted the importance of schools and education in achieving social mobility.

The issue of whether the education system helps or hinders in achieving social mobility is the subject of UNICEF Office of Research’s latest Report Card, ‘An Unfair Start’. The report uses comparable data from 41 high- and middle-income countries to examine which factors impact children’s ability to make the most of their education, and how far different educational systems and policies support children in achieving their potential. This provides a timely opportunity to examine how far the promises made by the UK government to build a fair society have been achieved, and how UK efforts at achieving this compare to other rich countries.

Before examining the success of the government in achieving Theresa May’s ‘great meritocracy’, two important critiques of social mobility should be noted. Firstly, the capacity for social mobility (the opportunity for children to progress towards a higher status in the future) to really address child poverty (a lack of adequate resources available to children in the present) is doubtful. Secondly, a high level of social mobility – a state in which everyone has equal opportunity to be rich or poor – could reasonably be seen as less desirable than a high level of equality – a state in which everyone has the resources they need for a decent standard of living. However, irrespective of these considerations, it is reasonable to assume that equal access to high-quality education is a necessary feature of a fair society.

The UNICEF report examines inequality across three stages of education – preschool, primary school, and secondary school. Countries are ranked based on the level of equality between children in access to and success in education. The UK’s performance is, to say the least, mediocre for the world’s sixth largest economy whose politicians claim a commitment to ‘life chances’ – rankings stand at:

- 20th out of 41 for preschool education: this was measured by the proportion of children enrolled in preschool provision for at least one year before school age, for at least one hour per week. Nearly all children aged 3 and over - 97.7% - attend preschool; but children under 3 and poor children are less likely to attend, and the gap between rich and poor in the UK is among the largest in all 41 of the countries, smaller only than the gaps in Cyprus, Bulgaria and Croatia.

- 23rd out of 38 for primary education: this was measured by the gap in reading scores (seen as a ‘gateway’ skill for learning other subjects) between the top 10% and bottom 10% of scores at age 10. The gap in the UK is comparatively large, and across the countries in the report children from lower socio-economic status backgrounds fare worse than their better-off peers. Bullying is also a problem for primary school children in the UK – almost half of children aged 10 report being bullied at least once a month, and the UK has among the highest rates of 10-year-old children reporting being bullied by classmates every week.

- 16th out of 38 for secondary education: similarly to primary education, this was measured by the gap in reading scores for children aged 15. The gap for the UK here is slightly better than in primary school, with the UK towards the middle of the league table – but this is hardly a ranking to be celebrated given the wealth of the country. Again, children with parents in higher-status jobs scored better on the reading tests than their worse-off peers.

These rankings reflect real differences in the lives of children and the opportunities available to them as they move towards adulthood. Far from demonstrating the ‘great meritocracy’ promised by Theresa May, many 10-year-old children are experiencing a hostile school environment, and parental earnings and job status continue to predict children’s opportunities to benefit from the education system. Indeed, in some areas it appears that evidence which could help to improve children’s chances is being ignored – for example, the UK is one of the most prolific users of ‘ability’ grouping in schools – a practice which is known to exacerbate inequalities between children.

The UK’s position in the middle of the rankings may not have the headline-grabbing potential of a very high or low rank. But the impressive level of detail presented in the report paints a picture for the UK that we should all be concerned about. Rather than achieving a fair society, educational inequalities based on characteristics beyond children’s and parents’ control – and for the most part related strongly to the experience of child poverty – are rife. They are perpetuated by an educational system that does little to mitigate the unfair advantages available to better-off families. Urgent action is needed to ensure that all children and families have the resources they need to enjoy childhood and to develop towards a fulfilling adulthood.2


1 Read the full report at

2 Research demonstrates that parents in poverty are no less likely to use their resources to promote their child’s well-being and progress towards a successful adulthood – see