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Parties should be pressed on improving the state of education

The next government will inherit an education system at a crossroads. English pupils are performing well by international standards. But there are big challenges on the horizon, including deep-seated inequalities, growing absences and escalating mental health problems.

Over the past decade, the literacy and numeracy skills of 15-year-olds in England have meaningfully improved. England compares well to other UK nations and is one of the world’s top performers in school-age attainment.

This is a significant achievement, particularly given a squeeze on school spending through much of this period. It speaks to the success of teachers, schools and policymakers in improving the productivity of England’s education system.

In terms of inequality, England is in the middle of the pack. But, when you consider both average levels of attainment and inequalities together, only Canada, Estonia, Ireland and Japan manage to deliver results that are both stronger and more equal than England.

The relationship between maths and reading level for 15 year olds and socio economic gaps in the OECD countries 2022

While international comparisons are favourable, the scale of inequalities in England is still stark. The gap between the most- and least-disadvantaged fifth of 15-year-olds is equivalent to the gap between average PISA scores in England and the average in Colombia.

And, of course, these gaps don’t just appear at the age of 15. At the start of primary school, only half of pupils eligible for free school meals achieve a good level of development, compared with almost three-quarters of their less disadvantaged peers.

These gaps persist throughout school and beyond. Students eligible for free school meals are three times less likely to attend the most selective higher education institutions.

Despite decades of policy attention, educational inequalities remain stubbornly persistent. There are no simple fixes, and new challenges are emerging on top of these long-standing problems.

New challenges are emerging on top oflong-standing problems

One of the most pressing is the sharp rise in the number of children with Education, Health and Care plans (the highest tier of support for special educational needs and disabilities). Since 2016, the number of children with EHCPs has grown by 60 per cent, leading to a £3.5-billion increase in the high needs budget. These spiralling costs account for almost half of the £7.6-billion increase in school spending over the same period.

Another challenge is the remarkable increase in school absenteeism since the pandemic. In 2022-23, pupils on average missed 14 days of school (or around 7 per cent of the school year). That’s up by nearly two-thirds since 2018-19.

This is a particularly acute issue among disadvantaged children: four in ten pupils eligible for free school meals are persistently absent, missing at least one day of school every fortnight.

The pandemic has also brought a significant shift in young people’s mental health and behaviour. Emotional and behavioural difficulties among 10- to 15-year-olds have risen sharply.

This is particularly the case among girls, with 30 per cent now meeting the threshold for abnormally high emotional and behavioural difficulties. These are a worrying set of trends which will affect both pupils and teachers.

Taking this all together, the next government will inherit a mixed legacy. There are high levels of average performance, but also entrenched inequalities and emerging challenges.

Amid the noise of the next few weeks, we need to ask what our leaders will do to help the most disadvantaged and vulnerable pupils.

Read the full State of Education 2024 report here

*Note: The horizontal axis measures the gap between the most and least disadvantaged quintiles in reading and maths (averaged). The vertical axis plots country-level averages of reading and maths scores. Green dashed lines indicate England’s position. PISA results are scaled to fit approximate normal distributions that have a mean of around 500 and a standard deviation of about 100. This means that only around 2% of students score above 700 or below 300 points. (Source: “The state of education: what awaits the next government?”)

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