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Education is one of the most important predictors of people’s life chances. Better-educated people are more likely to be in work and tend to earn more. At the age of 29, the average male graduate earns around 25% more than the average male school leaver. And the influence of education doesn’t stop there. Education shapes a range of other outcomes, including health, criminality, and even happiness. That’s why explaining differences in educational attainment is essential to understanding lifetime inequalities.

Does everyone get the same start in school?

Inequalities in the education system start early. The UK, like most countries, requires children to attend school. But the experiences individuals have at school can be very different. For example, government decisions drive the level of funding different schools receive. Schools make decisions as varied as whether to set children by ability or how big class sizes can be. Teachers’ choices on how to lead their classes can have a huge impact on learning. And even the other pupils in the classroom can influence a student’s attainment.

These early inequalities matter because they’re so persistent. Among students who achieve below the expected level at age 11, only 5% go on to get five good GCSEs. In our study we document when gaps in attainment emerge and how they evolve over the school years. We also investigate how these gaps are linked to characteristics like family background, gender, and ethnicity. As well as highlighting the existence of attainment gaps, we investigate how educational attainment is influenced by factors such as the school a child attends, their family, and their friends.

Education inequalities beyond the school years

After finishing compulsory education, people choose different educational pathways. Some students take the well-trodden academic track, completing A Levels and going on to higher education. Others enter the further education system, with a vast – and often confusing – set of qualifications to choose from. As part of our study, we ask how the UK’s post-compulsory education system affects existing attainment gaps. Does the current system allow the roughly 18% of students who don’t achieve five good GCSEs to get ‘back on track’? Do the higher and further education systems provide the necessary training and qualifications to support young adults in their future careers?

To answer these questions, we will draw on robust research evidence as well as our own data analysis. We will also consider what the UK can learn from the education systems of other countries.