Study finds educational inequality is greater among five-year-olds in US and UK than in Canada and Australia

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The education gaps between children of the most and least educated parents when they start school are significantly bigger in the US and the UK than they are in Canada and Australia, according to new research published by the Sutton Trust.

International Inequalities by Jane Waldfogel of Columbia University and the London School of Economics and Sean Reardon of Stanford University draws on research from across the world that was presented at a recent seminar on educational inequalities at the London School of Economics.

By comparing data on cohorts of children in the US, UK, Canada and Australia, researchers have consistently found the difference in reading attainment between the richest and poorest to be biggest in the US, where disadvantaged pupils are behind by about a year before they even start school. Gaps between those with the most and least educated parents are similar.

The researchers use standard deviations to assess the differences. Drawing on the Sutton Trust/EEF Toolkit model, the Sutton Trust estimates the reading gap is only slightly smaller in the UK, at about eight months. Educational inequality before school starts is much less pronounced in Australia and Canada, where children of the least educated lag behind their more advantaged classmates by an estimated six months.

Earlier Sutton Trust research has shown an overall school readiness gap between the poorest and richest pupils in the UK of 12-19 months.

The researchers also found that the attainment gaps in both the US and UK are much bigger today than they were for children born 40 to 60 years ago. In both countries, however, these gaps have started to narrow slightly in the past decade, but they are still much larger than they were in the past. Research by the LSE for the Sutton Trust in 2005 found that the main reason behind the UK’s declining levels of social mobility was an increasingly strong link between family background and educational attainment.

The Sutton Trust is calling for more efforts to focus on the early years to reduce these inequalities.  To make sure that disadvantaged children arrive at school on a more equal footing, the Trust is calling on the UK government to make sure that disadvantaged children have access to the best early years education and care, ensuring that the drive for more childcare is not at the expense of early education. They are also recommending that qualified and well-trained staff are employed in all early years settings and that parents have better access to proven programmes that engage and empower them to support their child’s learning at home.

To reduce attainment gaps in primary and secondary school, the report recommends that improving the quality of classroom teaching should be the top priority. They’d like every staff member to have a clear entitlement to high-quality professional development.

Sir Peter Lampl, Founder and Chairman of the Sutton Trust and Chairman of the Education Endowment Foundation, said:

There is a large difference between the reading attainment of the richest and poorest children in both the US and the UK. Tackling this disparity early on is critical to breaking the cycle of disadvantage and reducing inequality. We need to make sure that every child has access to high-quality early years education, so that rich and poor children arrive at school on a more equal footing.

Professor Jane Waldfogel, lead author of the research brief, said:

We have known for some time that achievement gaps in the US and UK are large. This international research puts them in context — and shows that they can and should be smaller.

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