Researching educational inequality

As we seek to develop our portfolio of programmes on educational inequality, we’ve first paused to consider the complexities behind the issue.


31 January 2019

We want to know how we can create the greatest positive difference for the people who need it most. That’s why OVO Foundation recently undertook desk research with the Young Foundation, an organisation that puts people at the heart of social change.

Together, we examined issues in educational inequality to decide where our money could make the most impact. Our aim has always been to level the playing field for disadvantaged children, but there are a number of potential avenues. So we explored the stages – early years, primary, the transition to secondary, secondary school, and post-16 – and chose one to focus on.

Disadvantage begins early

There is, of course, merit in pursuing any – or all of these options. Our research confirmed that the attainment gap is largest for children and young people eligible for free school meals (the best available proxy measure of economic disadvantage) across all stages of education. This gap is not only indicative of poor academic outcomes, but it can also negatively impact on areas, such as employment prospects and physical and mental health; reducing young people’s opportunities for life.

Key findings from our research, however, helped us to conclude that early intervention is crucial to preventing later problems. Evidence has confirmed that “income-related learning gaps in children’s cognitive or social and emotional skills” are present from as early as just 2 years old, and they continue to widen at every stage of education. The research also showed that the earlier you invest, the greater the potential benefits.

A report by Public Health England, for example, made the case that “for every £1 spent on early years education, £7 has to be spent to have the same impact in adolescence”.

Early years interventions

Getting to this point was fairly straightforward. There is a wealth of clear and strong evidence on the impact that investment can have in early years. The next step to identify specific interventions, however, highlighted the many complexities, as well as the critical stakeholders needed to bring about positive change at this stage in a child’s life.

The early years are key for children’s development of:

  • Social and emotional skills.
  • Cognitive skills, such as problem solving.
  • Speech and language skills.
  • Fine and gross motor skills from muscle use.

Research from Harvard University showed that “more than 1 million new neural connections are formed every second” during the early years of a child’s life. Supporting brain development and building children’s skills at this stage will therefore lay the foundations for learning, behaviour and health later on.

In addition, our research suggested that any intervention at this age will almost certainly affect more than one of these areas. For example, engaging parents and carers to speak more with their child when out and about will improve social and emotional skills, as well as speech and language. This is extremely positive news for our goal of achieving the greatest impact possible.

The challenges in securing strong foundations for all children, however, are wide ranging. They include supporting parents and carers, ensuring high quality in early years education and care, consolidating the gains made when children move on to primary school, and reaching the most disadvantaged throughout.

There are focused and promising interventions, which seek to overcome these difficulties, though, encompassing:

  • Supporting parental wellbeing and mental health.
  • Improving parental engagement in and around the home, ie. the ‘home learning environment’ (HLE).
  • Working with children directly to improve their skills
  • Improving the quality of early years provision, including professional development for staff.

What next?

Since June 2018, we’ve been working with the Parental Engagement Network (PEN) to help children from less advantaged backgrounds transition to nursery school. PEN helps parents and carers to complete simple and fun activities with their children, which develop skills, improve the HLE, and prepare them for school.

While not intended, the research process reaffirmed the evidence base for our existing work with PEN and the projects’ core components of improving engagement in the HLE. This provides training for early years staff and reaches the families who’ll benefit the most from support.

We’ll take the evidence from our research forward by maintaining the key principles of improving the HLE and engaging parents and carers, and continue to narrow the gap for children from the least advantaged backgrounds. We want to tailor interventions, so they’re accessible and relevant to the local context, and seek feedback from local families to ensure we maintain innovative and inspiring approaches.

Over the coming months, we’ll be exploring how best to pursue this ambition, identifying sustainable interventions, and collaborating with others. We’re thinking big and at the heart of it all is our mission to give young people a better future.

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