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Mind the Gap: Inequality in education

by Tracey Burns
Senior Analyst, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times … we had everything before us, we had nothing before us “…

Charles Dickens wrote A Tale of Two Cities in 1859. Almost two centuries later, his words remind us of what a very serious challenge inequity is.

Inequality has been growing in most OECD countries since the 1980s and is currently at its highest level in 30 years. Forecasts for 2060 suggest that gross earnings inequality could continue to rise dramatically across the OECD if current trends persist.

The widening income gap between the rich and the poor raises economic, social and political concerns. High inequality hinders GDP growth and reduces social mobility. Unequal opportunity results in a talent loss for the individual as well as for society. It also gives rise to a sense of injustice that can feed social unrest and decreasing trust in institutions and political systems.

Inequality in education plays out in many ways. Disadvantaged students are three times as likely to be among PISA’s poor performers as children from socio-economically advantaged backgrounds. Students from advantaged families are more likely to come from home environments that are conducive to learning, including a quiet place to study and access to the Internet. In addition, their parents are more likely to have the time and ability to help them with their homework and encourage them to study. Students without these opportunities are thus disadvantaged before entering school, and continue to be disadvantaged as they go through the education system.

It has been said before but it bears repeating: greater equity in education does not come at the expense of excellence. Some of the top performers in PISA 2015 had the highest levels of equity, such as Estonia, Hong Kong (China) and Macao (China). Working to improve the educational opportunities of all students, regardless of background, is an important element in the fight against inequality.

So what exactly can be done? An important first step is providing access to high quality early childhood education (ECEC) for all children. There is now a wealth of evidence, including longitudinal studies, that investing in ECEC yields high returns in boosting cognitive and non-cognitive skills, as well as later success in the labour market, especially for disadvantaged children.

Once in school, the quality of instruction and available resources matter. Improving the performance of disadvantaged schools is crucial: On average, advantaged schools in the OECD have lower student teacher ratios, meaning more individualised attention to each student. They also tend to have more qualified and more experienced teachers. This means that novice teachers are more likely to be placed in lower achieving and more challenging schools.

This is a real concern. In addition to being in the classroom for the first time, new teachers can find themselves faced with the highest needs students and in the lowest achieving schools. This can lead directly to frustration and burn-out. Mentoring programmes can play a key role in supporting new teachers and school leaders on the job. But so does addressing systemic biases that work against disadvantaged schools.

The latest Trends Shaping Education Spotlight looks at what education providers can do to create school systems that provide equal opportunity for all students, regardless of their background. It offers interesting examples of how systems and schools tackle the inequality challenge. It also identifies where more effort is needed, and some common policies that should be avoided or fine-tuned, such as grade repetition and certain kinds of early tracking.

Education is and will continue to be a critical tool to ensure growth and inclusiveness in our societies. Workers’ skills, educational attainment and ability do not only determine employment and income but are also crucial for health, social and political participation and living standards. Our education systems need to ensure that all students, irrespective of social background, have equal access to opportunity in schools and in the labour market. This means shifting the focus of our schools to academic excellence as well as strengthening equity, because only when excellence and equity go hand in hand will we be able to reduce inequality.


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