Educational Challenges in the United Kingdom

The United Kingdom is one of the countries that welcomes the largest number of international students into its institutions, especially to its renowned universities. However, the system is not without its challenges, dominated by budget cuts in state-funded education, endemic inequalities across society that permeate the education system, and the attainment gap between rich and poor students, which at the time of writing stands at 3.2%. [[i]][[ii]]

The structure of the education system varies slightly across the UK, as it is a matter of the government in each country: England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. Generally, there are five stages of education: early years or pre-school, primary, secondary, further education and higher education. All children in the age of compulsory education – from 5 to 16 – are entitled to a free place at a state school, which can be more or less elitist. As of January 2023, there were around 9 million pupils in state-funded schools, and over 2 million were eligible for free school meals. Free school meals are used to identify children from disadvantaged backgrounds.[[iii]]

Over the past decade, the UK has been governed by the Conservative Party, now led by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. Recently, the country has dealt with the exit of the UK from the European Union – a process known as ‘Brexit’ – and the Covid-19 pandemic. The pandemic left millions of children in lockdown and exacerbated existing inequalities. This exposed the shortcomings of the education system and perpetuated the attainment gap.

Budget cuts

Underfunding is one of the most pressing problems in the British educational system. This places a tremendous amount of strain on state-funded schools. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) reports that the 2019–2020 school year saw the most significant reduction in per-pupil spending in more than 40 years. This leads to increasing class numbers and student-teacher ratio, a shortage of resources, and even a reduction in teaching hours. There has reportedly been a 258% increase in secondary students in classes with 36 or more students since 2010. The provision of tailored and individualised attention is compromised by class sizes and reductions in support programmes, particularly for children with special educational needs. [[iv]]

Additionally, teachers are taking a big toll due to the budget cuts, as schools are forced to downsize staff. This results in teachers taking on extra duties and working an average of 55 hours per week. The working conditions and increasing pressure to provide individualised teaching without enough means are making some teachers reconsider their career path, with approximately half of the teachers in maths, sciences and languages quitting after five years. Moreover, they often seem to prefer working in private institutions, with a less diverse student population to attend, which requires less additional workload. [[v]]

Picture by Yan Krukau via Pexels

Cuts to the budget also make some schools’ limited access to technology worse. The shift to distant schooling due to the pandemic exposed and exacerbated already-existing technologically-induced educational disparities. Children from higher poverty and economically unstable neighbourhoods have disproportionately inadequate access to technology.  In the modern world, a lack of a laptop or an Internet connection puts one’s access to opportunities at risk. Private schools typically have superior resources to equip their pupils with the most recent technology than state schools, even offering equipment that the students can take home. The government should try to provide state schools with adequate funding that responds to evolving educational needs.

While it is true that since 2020, the effects of COVID-19 have put extra pressure on the government, civil society actors and journalists demand the government to do better. For instance, the NGO 1 Hour Life highlights that of the £15 billion recommended by the education recovery commissioner for England, the government only established a £1.4 billion Covid catch-up budget. [[vii]] Furthermore, Sonia Sodha reflects in The Guardian that the government’s policies have neglected the child’s best interests both before and after the pandemic. [[viii]]

Inequality and the attainment gap

Social inequalities have a significant effect on children and young people’s education. The UK is a country where this is particularly prominent, with a noticeable difference in performance in children from poor and wealthier backgrounds. From their early years, children are affected by the disproportion of resources. State schools in more impoverished areas, like some inner-city areas, are more affected by budget cuts as government spending per student continues to decrease. Implementation of support programmes is also inequal in some regions across England. For example, the North-East region saw a smaller implementation of Covid support programmes than schools in the South. Regarding ethnicity, in a country that is well-known for its multicultural urban areas, it’s generally students from Gypsy, Roma and Irish Traveller backgrounds who struggle the most because of higher illiteracy and language barriers among their parents. Some children with an uncertain legal status after Brexit or seeking asylum might also experience additional barriers to accessing education. [[ix]][[x]]

A family’s wealth and well-being have a significant impact on students. Almost one in 50 children across the UK miss more than half the time they should be in school because families can’t afford transportation costs, uniforms, school supplies, or school meals. This is more than double from before the pandemic. [[xi]] Despite the free school meals allowance, around a third of children experiencing poverty are not entitled to it. Some children report not eating anything during school time, hiding at lunchtime to avoid watching their peers eat or being shamed for receiving the allowance. This is because an apparent differentiation between children with free school meals and the rest is made: they are only entitled to a limited selection of items at the canteen. The UK should perhaps take notice of other European countries that provide standardised meals for all students. [[xii]] Controlling canteen prices is also important so that child health stops being a profitable market to exploit and that children can develop properly.

The UK must work harder to bridge the attainment gap between poor and rich students. In its voluntary national review of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, the government promised that no student would be left behind and fair opportunities would be ensured regardless of socioeconomic differences. [[xiii]] In the long term, social inequalities that the education system fails to redress are life-changing, resulting in higher drop-outs, lower grades, lower than average earnings, increased criminality, and less presence in high-powered positions.

 In the UK, where you study matters. And where you end up studying after compulsory education is highly influenced by where you study your primary and secondary education, which in turn is related to your family’s wealth. For example, in 2020, 8 elite schools, including two state schools, sent more pupils to Oxford and Cambridge than almost 3,000 other UK state schools. Although the number of young people accessing university continues to increase, socioeconomic inequalities continue to be perpetuated again in the higher education system. Students not graduating from universities with a perceived ‘legacy’ and prestige typically miss out on high-powered jobs because of prejudice from employers in the country. [[xiv]] ‘Legacy’ and ‘prestige’ immediately point to the University of Cambridge and the University of Oxford. They’re not the only ones, however. There are 24 universities, including these, which belong to the Russell Group – perhaps the closest version to a British Ivy League.

British Prime Ministers and cabinet members historically attended specific colleges in these institutions. Before that, they are typically educated in all kinds of non-state, privately funded institutions with prestige. A total of 30 out of 57 Prime Ministers have been educated at Oxford, and 20 have been educated at Eton College, which has a yearly fee of £48,000. The elitism that persists in positions of power and the most influential law or accounting firms is an example of the uneven spread of opportunities to enter the most prestigious positions. It also shows the profound classism that persists in the country, where people born in certain wealth and in certain areas have access to significantly better-funded education. [[xv]]

Even at a higher education level, England has one of the highest university fees in Europe: around £9,000 a year. Students typically take government loans to subsidise the cost of their studies. On the other hand, Scotland provides free university tuition for undergraduate courses for all Scottish students, aiming to achieve an inclusive education. Tuition fees, however, are not the only costs associated with university studies: with an exploitative renting market and rising living costs, 63% of students struggle to pay for their living expenses, and two in five consider dropping out of their courses. [[xvi]]

Students playing croquet at Eton College in the 1970s / Picture by Annie Spratt via Pexels

Final remarks

It is worth mentioning that other important issues should be addressed when talking about issues in the British education system. These are topics like discrimination, increasing bullying, and prominent peer-on-peer sexual harassment. These need to be explored more deeply in further articles. This article has focused on endemic inequalities in the education system in the UK to highlight how the profoundly classist system works. At the moment, the UK proves to be a country with endemic inequalities that affect where students study, the quality of their education due to poor funding, and the ongoing struggles due to costs associated with education and the increasing cost of living. It seems to be a system that rewards those students born and graduated into privilege.

Under the Conservative government, it is a country that has been continuously cutting down on public spending on education and public services, which would redress the effects of poverty and reduce the attainment gap. An argument can be made that addressing the digital divide, the inequalities within school populations, and redressing budget cuts is highly expensive. And it is. Nonetheless, education is a fundamental right, crucial for the development of children and the basis for a democratic society. A country that only rewards those who can afford private education and private services is doomed to be ruled by elites and have endemic inequalities. Currently, pressing challenges persist in the UK to bridge the attainment and opportunities gap between children and young people from different socioeconomic backgrounds.


References

[i] Studee. (2023). 10 most popular countries for international students. https://studee.com/guides/10-most-popular-countries-for-international-students/

[ii] Explore education statistics. (2023, September 12). Academic year 2022/23: Key stage 2 attainment. UK Government Department for Education, Explore education statistics. https://explore-education-statistics.service.gov.uk/find-statistics/key-stage-2-attainment

[iii] Department for Education. (2023). Education system in the UK. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/219167/v01-2012ukes.pdf

[iv] Weale, S. (2023, October 18). Cuts could reduce education in England to ‘bare bones’, headteachers say. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/education/2023/oct/18/risk-of-education-in-england-being-reduced-to-bare-bones-headteachers-say

[v] 1 Hour Life. (2022, February 3). 5 Challenges in Education Today in the UK. https://1hourlife.org/challenges-in-education/

[vi] 1 Hour Life. (2022, February 3). 5 Challenges in Education Today in the UK. https://1hourlife.org/challenges-in-education/

[vii] 1 Hour Life. (2022, February 3). 5 Challenges in Education Today in the UK. https://1hourlife.org/challenges-in-education/

[viii] Sodha, S. (2023, October 22). Empty classroom seats reveal ‘long shadow’ of Covid chaos on Britain’s children. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2023/oct/22/empty-classroom-seats-reveal-long-shadow-of-covid-chaos-on-children

[ix] Equality and Human Rights Commission. (2022). Submission to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child: Children’s Rights in Great Britain, 56-75

[x] Race Disparity Unit. (2023). Ethnicity facts and figures. UK Government, Race Disparity Unit. https://www.ethnicity-facts-figures.service.gov.uk/

[xi] Sodha, S. (2023, October 22). Empty classroom seats reveal ‘long shadow’ of Covid chaos on Britain’s children. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2023/oct/22/empty-classroom-seats-reveal-long-shadow-of-covid-chaos-on-children

[xii] O’Connell, R; Brannen, J. (2023, October 20). A Portuguese lesson on free school meals. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/education/2023/oct/20/a-portuguese-lesson-on-free-school-meals

[xiii] HM Government. (2019). Voluntary National Review of progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals: United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/media/5d2f3d6aed915d2feeac49f4/UKVNR-web-accessible1.pdf

[xiv] Adams, R. (2023, October 17). Bolton graduates miss out on top jobs because of prejudice, says vice-chancellor. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/education/2023/oct/17/university-of-bolton-graduates-miss-out-on-top-jobs-because-of-prejudice-says-vice-chancellor

[xv] The Week. (2022, October 25). Prime ministers and private schools. https://theweek.com/news/education/958294/prime-ministers-and-private-schools

[xvi] Brown, L. (2023, February 8). National Student Accommodation Survey 2023 – Results. Save The Student. https://www.savethestudent.org/accommodation/national-student-accommodation-survey-2023.html

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