Over the past decade, the literacy and numeracy skills of 15-year-olds in England have improved significantly relative to other high-income countries, making England one of the world’s top performers in terms of school-age attainment.  

But high average levels of attainment mask big and stubborn inequalities. Just 43% of 16-year-olds eligible for free school meals achieved at least grade 4 in English and maths in 2023, compared with 72% of their better-off peers. This gap has remained virtually unchanged for the past 20 years, and similar inequalities exist at every stage of education. Pious promises to tackle these inequalities have consistently come to naught. 

The next government will face new challenges, particularly in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. School absences have increased by almost two-thirds since 2019, with students now missing an average of 14 days of school per year, up from an average of less than 9 days in 2019. 37% of disadvantaged pupils are now recorded as 'persistently absent' (meaning they miss at least a day of school per fortnight on average) compared with 23% pre-pandemic. Among less disadvantaged pupils, the share of ‘persistently absent’ pupils has doubled from 8% to 16% in the same period. 

In new IFS research, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, we set out the mixed legacy that the next Education Secretary will inherit and the emerging challenges facing teachers and schools. 

Key findings include: 

  • Among OECD countries, only Canada, Estonia, Ireland and Japan manage to deliver both stronger average attainment and lower inequality than England.  
  • Within the UK, English schools perform much better than those in Wales and Scotland. Wales is the most equal country in the OECD, but with much lower levels of average attainment across the board than in England. 
  • The COVID-19 pandemic has hit attainment – a decade of progress in reading has been reversed and numeracy levels have fallen back to what they were in 2015. But young people’s skills have held up better during the pandemic than in many comparable countries.
  • The number of children on an Education, Health and Care plan – the highest tier of support for special educational needs – has risen by 60% since 2016, with the fastest rise among children from less disadvantaged backgrounds. This increase is even more striking since there is evidence of schools and local authorities rationing support (98% of appeals are successful at tribunals).  
  • Behavioural and mental health challenges are also up sharply; in 2022–23, 30% of girls aged 10–15 met the threshold for abnormally high emotional and behavioural difficulties, up 5 percentage points since 2019–20. 10% of young people now say they strongly dislike school (double the pre-COVID rate).  

Imran Tahir, IFS research economist and an author of the report, said:

‘Over the past decade, teachers, schools and government have made real progress on education. England is now one of the top performers in international assessments of reading and maths, and few countries deliver both stronger results and lower inequality. But the scale of those inequalities is still enormous – the gap between the most- and least-disadvantaged fifth of 15-year-olds is equivalent to the gap between the average in England and the average in Colombia. If the next government wants to tackle these entrenched inequalities, its challenge will be made even more difficult by the legacy of the pandemic. Almost four in ten disadvantaged pupils now miss at least one day of school per fortnight. Rates of special educational needs and mental health challenges are rising sharply. And twice as many young people now say they strongly dislike school as before the pandemic. The key for the next government will be to build on the progress made in pupil attainment, but to address these new challenges that are putting schools and teachers under severe strain.’ 

Josh Hillman, Director of Education at the Nuffield Foundation, said:

‘Inequalities in educational achievement and opportunity remain large, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only widened them further. Incoming education ministers that seek to address this will need to develop innovative and well-resourced policies around areas such as literacy and numeracy, special educational needs and pupil absence. But other government departments will also need to play a part to support the broader well-being of disadvantaged children and young people, essential for their educational development.’