Britain’s divided schools: a disturbing portrait of inequality

The statistics are stark: boys are slipping behind girls in 11 out of 13 learning categories by the age of five; children from the poorest families are half as likely to achieve good GCSEs; black pupils of Caribbean descent are three times more likely to be excluded; four out of five young people with special needs are being bullied; between a quarter and a third of Muslim women have no qualifications.

After decades of reform, during which governments have tried desperately to address the social fault lines in British education, the problems persist.

In the space of 80 pages – one chapter of its groundbreaking report on fairness in Britain, due to be published tomorrow – the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) portrays an education system in 2010 that is deeply divided. The inequalities emerge at nursery, carry on into primary school and secondary education, and then university and beyond. Some relate to race, others to poverty, disability and the problems experienced by Britain’s boys.


The report, How Fair is Britain?, reveals evidence of boys in their early years slipping behind in problem solving and reasoning and then in social and emotional development. By the age of five, 53% had reached the expected level in writing compared with 72% of girls.

Next they underachieve at GCSE, failing to go in such large numbers to university; when they do, they are less likely to gain a 2:1 or a first. It is not just an academic problem – the report finds that boys are also three and a half times more likely to be permanently excluded from school. “A lot of boys feel they do not fit into the way education is now,” said Gaynor Sbuttoni, an educational psychologist. She argued that schools placed too much emphasis on skills that boys often struggle with but which were not necessarily relevant in adulthood.

Take neat handwriting as an example, she said, describing seeing a beautifully written piece by a male pupil that had one comment scrawled across it by a teacher: “Please write more neatly.”

Or sitting still – something girls tend to be better at. “So a boy can’t sit still, so he gets told off, so he starts to feel like a bad boy, so he starts to behave like a bad boy, so he gets told off some more, so he gets angry, so the teacher gets angry and so on,” said Sbuttoni, her words tumbling out as she described the vicious circle. “And so his work will suffer.”

The under-achievement of boys is an international phenomenon that has emerged in recent years. New Labour sought to tackle it in the late 1990s when Stephen Byers, then the schools standards minister, said we “should not simply accept with a shrug of the shoulder that boys will boys”. So councils were ordered to draw up plans that addressed the issue. Later, there was an intensive project in more than 50 schools. Some blamed the lack of male primary teachers so there was a drive to recruit more.

For Sbuttoni the solution is obvious. “We need to change the way we teach, we need to make it more attractive, more fun, take the pressure away so we are not just worrying about the amount of information we can stuff into children’s brains,” she said. She remembered watching pupils collect spiders and worms and use them to learn about nature, geography and maths. Boys thrived in that environment, she claimed.

Many parents agree. Late last week, mothers writing on the Mumsnet website discussed the issues. “I think that boys take longer to be ready to learn than girls,” wrote one woman. “When a boy is six to seven they are still very active and have a short attention span.” Erratic boys found it hard to be told suddenly to calm down and concentrate, she added.

Another mother described how one “chaotic” school with few opportunities to play outside sent boys “stir crazy”.


According to the EHRC report, bullying is rife in the classrooms, corridors and playgrounds of Britain’s school. Two thirds of young people claimed to have been bullied at some point between 2004 and 2006. That proportion rises to four fifths when it comes to children with special educational needs (SEN). One woman writing on Mumsnet said her son had high-functioning autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. “He was bullied daily,” she wrote. “The children knew that they could coax a reaction from him, so would goad him and call him names, walk up behind him and poke him like a dog and then run off.” Yet it was her son who was excluded.

It is a depressingly familiar story to campaigner Julie Maynard, who has a 15-year-old autistic son, Joshua, and who has represented dozens of other parents of children at the Special Educational Needs and Disability Tribunal.

“Are you really surprised that children who are perceived as different are bullied? The sadness is that many SEN children do not have the language ability or cognitive ability to defend themselves,” said Maynard. She talked of children with learning disabilities and autism having to “fend for themselves in dizzy, mainstream schools, unsupervised at lunch and play”.

But Maynard wanted to talk about parents, too. “What appals me is the lack of sympathy by parents of able children towards our children, who they perceive as a nuisance and a burden. It adds educational pressure to school staff who have to deal with the wishes of both competing groups of parents,” she said.

The EHRC report also highlights homophobic bullying – and cyber-bullying, which it says affects one in three young people of secondary age. It also points to research that suggests children with religious beliefs have been targeted because of their faith.

Charities that offer support to young people abused at school say that an increasing number are being driven to suicide.

Emma-Jane Cross, chief executive of Beatbullying, said it was “unacceptable” that between a third and half of all children in the UK think bullying is a problem in their school – a statistic revealed in the report.

Taken to the extreme, bullying meant criminal behaviour, she added, explaining that her organisation was lobbying for a school safety bill to make it unlawful to harass pupils or teachers at school. Next month, thousands will take part in an online “Big March” in protest at the problem.

And the impact of bullying permeates children’s school achievement as well. According to the EHRC, children who have been bullied do worse in GCSEs – scoring on average 15% lower than those who have not. They are also twice as likely to end up out of education and without a job.

Some of the trends highlighted in the EHRC report are clear – boys are falling behind girls, children with disabilities are highly vulnerable and those from the poorest families face disadvantage from the very start.


The study highlights the fact that just over a third of children who qualify for free school meals – often used as an indicator of deprivation – reach a “good” level of development by the age of five. That compares with more than half who do not.

For white British, Bangladeshi and black Caribbean boys on free meals, the number is closer to a quarter. And the trend continues throughout school, with pupils from the poorest families half as likely to get good GCSE results and twice as likely to be permanently excluded.

Policymakers know that poverty matters when it comes to attainment. That is why league tables based on a “value-added” measure were introduced that looked not just at overall results but at how far pupils had come. And while many argue about their worth, academies brought in by the last government to replace struggling schools in deprived communities were meant to break down such social divisions.

The coalition also says it is driven by a desire to stamp out such unfairness. Sarah Teather, the Liberal Democrat children’s minister, said: “We have a moral duty to eradicate the unacceptable inequalities that still exist in our society, to narrow the gaps between rich and poor and between different ethnic groups, to work as hard as we can to make our society fairer.” She said policies such as the pupil premium, which will provide extra funding for the poorest pupils, will be at the heart of her government’s plans.

Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said Teather was right to highlight economic disadvantage as key.

But he argued that the inequalities emerged well before children reached the school gates: “Schools are not adding to the problem – they are part of the solution.”


Once it was a story of black and white, in which racial discrimination was a major driving force. But in tomorrow’s report, the story of ethnicity is a complicated one – in which poor black boys underachieve, as do those from Irish Traveller families, but poor Chinese girls overachieve; Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities see different outcomes to Indian ones; and there is a growing group of mixed race children who in themselves have complex outcomes.

Take exclusions, for example. Pupils from non-white British backgrounds were as likely in 2008-09 to be permanently excluded as pupils overall. But a more detailed analysis shows large differences between groups.

The lowest permanent exclusion rates were among the Asian community, with five out of every 10,000 pupils being excluded, followed by children with one white and one Asian parent.

Those closer to the average of 10 permanent exclusions per 10,000 were white British, black African, Irish and mixed white/black African children. Yet children with one white and one black Caribbean parent were 2.5 times more likely to be excluded than average, with a rate of 25 per 10,000 pupils. The highest rates of exclusions were found among Gypsy/Roma children, who were more than three times more likely to be excluded, followed by black Caribbean pupils.

Last week, at the Conservative party conference, deputy headteacher Katharine Birbalsingh declared: “Black underachievement is due in part to the chaos of our classrooms, and in part to the accusation of racism. If you keep telling teachers that they’re racist for trying to discipline black boys … the schools stop reprimanding these children.”

Rob Berkeley, director of the Runnymede Trust, a leading race equality thinktank, said the comments were a concern. “My worry is the race to say that racial discrimination is never a problem,” he said. But tomorrow’s report makes clear that ethnicity still matters – even if you control the factor of class, he added. So it is a little early to declare “mission accomplished”.

He said the issue of race inequality had become complex and it was urgent to highlight what parts of disadvantage were about racial discrimination and what were about something else.

“A lot of the time you look at the figures and say there is inequality and that needs to be tackled. But when you come to the real stats, then some is about class, some about gender and some about cultural patterns.”

Hobby argued that it was important to maintain high expectations of all children, be they black, brown or white, male or female, rich or poor, disabled or not. “The solution is not to single out separate groups,” he said. After all, as the EHRC report makes clear, disadvantage is much more complicated than that. It is often about people who fall into two, three or four categories that are highlighted.

What the EHRC report does show is that inequality remains a stark reality in Britain – not just throughout a deeply split education system, but on into adulthood, where who you are and where you came from continues to define where you are likely to end up.

Tomorrow, the government’s equalities body lays down the most comprehensive set of evidence ever published; a fairness map of Britain that spells out just how far we have to go. It is up to politicians to decide if and how they will embark on the journey.