UK weak in school fairness rankings

University entrance test in China University entrance test: China's cities have more equitable school systems

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The UK is below average in an international comparison of social mobility within school systems.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) produces rankings of school performance - but it has now published an analysis of fair opportunities for pupils.

It shows that Shanghai in China, South Korea and Finland are among top performers in both results and equity.

The UK is successful in results, but weaker in fairness.

This OECD study compares the reading skills of teenagers against the levels of social equity.

Breaking the cycle

The Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) tests published by the OECD show a strong link between social disadvantage and low achievement in school.

"On average across OECD countries, disadvantaged students are twice as likely to be among the poorest performers in reading compared to advantaged students," says the report, based on an analysis of tests taken in 2009.

But this study says there is nothing inevitable about this connection between social background and achievement.


  • Shanghai
  • Hong Kong
  • Finland
  • South Korea
  • Canada
  • Japan
  • Iceland
  • Estonia
  • Netherlands
  • Norway
  • Liechtenstein
  • Taiwan
  • Italy
  • Ireland

Source: OECD. School systems with above average results in reading and higher equity levels

At the top end of the international spectrum, Shanghai, Finland, South Korea, Canada, Japan, Hong Kong and the Netherlands are among a select group of school systems with very high results and high levels of fairness, where pupils can succeed regardless of background.

Russia, Spain, Croatia and the Czech Republic are relatively strong on equal opportunities, but have low performance.

Bulgaria, Turkey and Kyrgyzstan perform poorly on both equity and results.

The UK belongs to a group of countries, including France, Germany and the United States, that are above average for results, but have lower levels of equity.

Andreas Schleicher, the OECD's special adviser on education, says a long-term characteristic of the UK's education system has been social division - with a polarisation between the results of rich and poor pupils.

But although the UK remains less equal than the OECD average, there has been an improvement.

Mr Schleicher says this is also a major problem for other Western economies, such as France and Germany. And the big challenge is to develop education systems that no longer accept widespread underachievement among poorer pupils.

"In the past, economies and school systems could tolerate these inequalities. But the life chances are deteriorating rapidly for those without qualifications. There are more severe penalties," he says.

A report from the OECD last year found that the UK's schools were among the most socially segregated of any industrialised country.

A Department for Education source said: "This OECD analysis is based on data from 2009 and clearly shows that despite record spending Labour failed the poorest children in England.

"This is unacceptable, and it is why we are raising standards by giving teachers stronger discipline powers, tackling underperforming schools, improving exams, and attracting the brightest graduates into teaching. The pupil premium, targeted specifically at the poorest children and worth £900 per pupil in 2013-14, will help schools raise attainment."

Shadow Education Secretary Stephen Twigg said: "While independent research shows Labour narrowed the gap, this report shows the government are going in the wrong direction.

"The OECD says fairness means all young people gaining good skills and not dropping out early. But under this government the numbers staying on in education are down, and the number of children getting catch up tuition in the basics is falling."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 373.

    I was in a class at secondary school where people thought that education was meaningless and got you no where. Even when we were in sets, the people in top set (mine) still didn't try. The reason for the results above is because the people who do try are held back by those who don't care. Seperate them into those who are achieving and those who aren't.

  • rate this

    Comment number 372.

    366 michellgrand

    'Never do politicians seem interested in lifting the teaching in 'poor' schools'

    I'm not at all in favour of politically motivated interference in education but I have to say this statement is miles from the truth. They might not always have got the policy right, and certainly lack consistency of approach (always after a quick fix) but they certainly take and interest.

  • rate this

    Comment number 371.

    Lots of people banging on about re introducing grammar schools. Well such a system would have written me off at the age of eleven. Yet today I make the PM and his cronies look like people who would lose an argument with a stuffed iguana!

    Selective education at an early age is never fair.

  • rate this

    Comment number 370.

    How can our system be fair? £5, 595 spent per year on average per pupil in the UK.

    Private school (for boarders, so no distraction) is on average £23, 400 per pupil per year.

    My maths makes that four times the amount.

    Look at the cabinet, 53% went to private school, average is 7%.

    Private schooling gives you privileges, including a lucrative career!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 369.

    I don't suppose it has anything to do with our culture rather than the schools? Its not cool to study in this country but it is in the Far East. If we really want to improve things we need to do something about our culture as well as moan about the school system. But that wouldn't do would it because we are all victims aren't we?

  • rate this

    Comment number 368.

    @363. Nemesis65
    @359. MR TRUCULENT
    Both posts are correct - in state schools a degree and perhaps a PGCE (if it wasn't a teaching degree) are needed. BUT it doesn't follow the degree is in the right subject. I know of schools who employ teachers for science because they are already teachers - sometimes of PE and similar - but won't even interview a qualified non-teacher.

  • rate this

    Comment number 367.

    Its worth pointing out that a high percentage of people going on to higher education is not an indicator of fairness. Our education system will only be fair when our backgrounds stop being a significant factor in whether we go on to higher education and the quality of their higher education.

  • rate this

    Comment number 366.

    What do we do for children whose parents don't take an interest in their freedom of choice for whatever reason? Let them sink?
    Never do the politicians seem interested in lifting the teaching in the 'poor' schools. Instead it's shame them, and make sure your kids never end up there

  • rate this

    Comment number 365.

    My comment 319 was Editor's Pick for a while, but now it isn't!

  • rate this

    Comment number 364.

    There is NO social mobility in the UK - school, work or anywhere
    You can ONLY get a 'top job' on 'top pay' if you happen to know 'the right people' - normally through school. Hardwork and 'success' gets you nothing at all. Failure at the top costs nothing (look at the bankers and politicians).

  • rate this

    Comment number 363.


    But you are required to have a degree in education OR a degree and a PGCE to teach in state schools. You do not need a PGCE if you want to teach in a private school, in fact you require no formal training in teaching to teach at a private or public school.

    Mr Truculent also needs to learn how to spell.....

  • rate this

    Comment number 362.

    361. Well given many of the ill-informed and bigoted views expressed on here I suspect not.

  • rate this

    Comment number 361.

    Only the re-introduction of grammar schools, and this time for all, will give the majority of children access to a decent education. The old 11-plus exam was simply a device to limit the number of children able to qualify for university.

  • rate this

    Comment number 360.

    Does anyone think we are too educated?

  • rate this

    Comment number 359.

    Has always said the teaching in the UK is well below standards. This is because the teachers are NOT properly educated themselves. Less than 50% of Teachers do not have a degree in the subjects they teach. They should be able to Communicate better thats what teaching is all about. MR.TRUCULENT had to have home tuition 4 evenings/week.This proves how band his education was

  • rate this

    Comment number 358.

    Results are good but fairness is bad.

    Doesn't that mean results would be even better if we just invested in people's education based on their intelligence rather than their parent's income.

    Come on Gove - go for it!

    ... hang on, you're a Tory. Never mind.

  • rate this

    Comment number 357.

    "Surely the aim should be to get state schools to the standard of private schools"

    Oddly enough, the first UK Comprehensives developed in the 1940s were modelled on getting all State schools up to the level of Grammar. The dumbing down of the system took place under Labour's Anthony Crossland in the '60s and completed by Education Secretary Margaret Thatcher in the 1970s!

  • rate this

    Comment number 356.

    The Bloke (333) said teachers spend too much time on modules and marking. Unfortunately, the headteacher at my childrens' primary school doesn't believe in teacher marking and the school relies almost totally on peer or self marking by pupils. This is despite research evidence that the most effective thing schools can do in order to enhance pupil progress is effective teacher feedback for pupils.

  • rate this

    Comment number 355.

    348 - here we go again - can't you people accept responsibility for your own problems and leave the US out of it? And you are wrong,BTW, as you would know if you actually knew enough about the US to make a valid comment. Just sort yourselves out and quit shifting blame - it's no fault of the US if ignoramuses ape them, mistakenly in this case

  • rate this

    Comment number 354.

    I grew up on a council estate and my parents encouraged me to read and write pretty much from birth so I grew up wanting to learn and succeed. I pushed myself to pass tests for Grammar school and once there was surrounded by like minded. This drive continued through school, university and in pushing for internships and roles in the City. School pushed me enormously but parents are the foundation.


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