Education and Skills

Education inequality remains prevalent in the world's richest countries

School head teachers demonstrate to demand better funding for education, in London, Britain, September 28, 2018. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls - RC19D95EC140

The UK ranks 16th in terms of educational inequality. Image: REUTERS/Peter Nicholls

Kate Pickett
Professor of Epidemiology, Department of Health Sciences, University of York
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Many people, across the political spectrum, see education as the key to solving all inequalities. If children have equal opportunities and access to quality education, then all will be well. But, as a new report shows, rich countries vary widely in how big the gap is between the educational achievement of rich and poor children.

Unicef’s report, An Unfair Start, looks at educational inequalities in 41 of the world’s richest countries, covering inequalities from access to early childhood education to expectations of post-secondary education.

The UK ranks 16th from the top in terms of educational inequality during the secondary school years, which doesn’t sound too terrible, but the UK come 23rd in inequalities during the primary school years. These are depressing scores for the world’s fifth largest economy.

Income inequality

But this is not the first time the UK has ranked badly in supporting children in comparison to other countries. And research has shown that child well-being is directly linked with income inequality. So because the UK hasn’t done much to reduce high levels of income inequality over the past decade, there hasn’t been much change in how well British children are doing.

In 2007, Unicef published its first report on child well-being in rich countries. The UK, shockingly, ranked at the very bottom – with worse child well-being than any other country. There was also shown to be a strong and significant link between a country’s level of income inequality – the gap between rich and poor – and how well children were doing.

Since then, Unicef has repeated the exercise of comparing rich countries – with reports in 2013 and 2016. Across many dimensions of child well-being, the UK does badly, often outranked by much poorer countries, such as Portgual and Eastern European nations.

Low quality education

Tackling educational inequalities does not have to mean sacrificing high standards. In fact, the new Unicef report shows that countries with higher average achievement have lower gaps in reading scores between the best and the worst readers. At primary school, the Netherlands does particularly well, with high average performance and a small gap. New Zealand does particularly badly, with a low average and a large gap in performance.

It is also clear that high income is no guarantee of high educational quality. Some of the poorer countries in the group –- Latvia, Estonia, Croatia –- do better than some of the wealthier counties, such as the UK, US or Sweden.

Rich countries are failing their poorest children, Unicef found.
Image: Shutterstock

The report also shows that girls consistently do better than boys. And migrant children do less well than non-migrant children in most countries – although in Australia and Canada, second-generation immigrant children outperform non-migrant children.

Family backgrounds is also shown to be a key driver of attainment and inequalities. Children from lower social class backgrounds lag behind their peers from richer, higher social class backgrounds from preschool onwards. None of this is news, these facts are well-known by educational researchers and teachers alike.

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How to make it better

There’s also the issue that affordability of preschool and childcare creates a barrier to access for many families. Research shows that in countries where there is more of a gap between rich and poor families who have children in early childhood education, fewer children overall attend. And in London, for example, even when there is some free preschool provision, children from more affluent areas are most likely to take up places. Educational inequalities are also worse when there is more segregation of rich and poor children in schools.


Unicef are cautious in their proposals to reduce educational inequalities. They call for better data and more attention to equality rather than average attainment, more attention to gender stereotypes and the gender mix of the teaching profession, and a focus on basic skills.

They also call for high quality early education and care to be guaranteed for all children. But stop short of suggesting it should be free for all. In their boldest proposal they suggest that welfare and benefits for families and less socioeconomic segregation in schools will help to mitigate educational inequalities.

But we need to be more radical if we want to reduce educational inequalities: turn to solving the deep-seated root causes at their source. This can be done by creating economies where child well-being is a central and overarching aim – not something that’s only thought about every few years, when Unicef reveals how future generations are being failed.

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Related topics:
Education and SkillsEquity, Diversity and InclusionEconomic Growth
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