Education & Family

UK weak in school fairness rankings

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

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.

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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