Access to Education in the UK


Education is an essential human right. Inherently, education allows us to exercise all our other human rights too. On the most drastic level of violation to this human right, many of us are aware of the fundamental inequalities that exist in access to education around the world, particularly where conditions of poverty, corruption or gender inequality prohibit even entry and sustained attendance at school, let alone quality of education standards, facilities and consequent opportunities.

Within the UK’s educational system however, vast access inequalities exist also. Despite perceptions that as a society we have made contemporary progress in overhauling distinctive class systems that determine our opportunities in life, class – socio-economic background – is exactly what is still entrained in our society.

This particularly promotes an unfortunate chain of educational disadvantage in UK’s societal system and educational institutions. Being brought up in a deprived neighbourhood, in a socio-economically disadvantaged household, is strongly linked to the educational resources, opportunities and experiences one will have. A good education however is paramount for social mobility, and therefore to alleviate out of this disadvantaged chain.

UK has a considerable gap in access to education between pupils of different socio-economic backgrounds
UK has a considerable gap in access to education between pupils of different socio-economic backgrounds
Credit: REX



The problem is many-fold. On the one hand, initial school access is universally selective: whether comprehensive, grammar or private, all schools select their pupils in some way, ranging from neighbourhood catchment area, faith, or academic achievement or “ability”. Right from the beginning therefore, at young ages, children are prescribed a certain academic category, inherently discouraging many from academic aspirations beyond the level one has achieved so far.


Significantly embedded in this problem is family background – the support and opportunities one has at home. This factor is so important because UK society’s educational system is one that often banks on pupils’ individual backgrounds to help pave the way. Consequences of this cover almost all bases, such that slight difference in different pupils’ home experiences can create a massive disparity in educational achievement and subsequent access to Higher Education.

For example, when children are young, there is high assumption all children can continue to be intellectually engaged and stimulated when schools leave them unsupervised. School holidays are considerably long in the UK, compared to other countries that have successful schooling achievement and equality, like Finland, Sweden, Japan and specialist KIPP schools for disadvantaged children in the US. For children to continue wider learning during these periods, activities like going to museums, zoos, and activity groups, either afford guardian supervision time – or furthermore parents or guardians’ ideas to get their children involved in such activities, and often money. There is assumption that where teaching and help is lacking in schools, academic help can be somewhat provided at home by ‘educated’ parents. Later on in schooling it is also assumed pupils can reach to wider family know-how on where to find and obtain work experience and internships, and be fully informed on the benefits of gaining a Higher Education.

Scientific socio-psychological research has shown that educational attainment disperses between poorer and richer pupils during unsupervised schooling periods like summer holidays and extra missed learning opportunities, even down to dinner conservations and internet access at home. By the end of primary school, research has found that the gap created between poorer and richer pupils is already significantly differentiated.

Therefore, educational facilities and experiences provided by our educational institutions are paramount in bridging these inequalities. Particularly in reaching Higher Education, we have to rely on the efforts of schools and universities to encourage and stretch access to all potential students. This is not all about academic ‘grades’, but mindset also: students from low-income families are often de-motivated by parents that university is ‘not for them’ because of no prior family history at university, the financial investment required, or unseen academic potential of the student because of previous inhibitions created in the school-home educational system. Understandably, there is a common visage that university pools students of a certain ‘elite’ class: because of education access inequalities, and limited maintenance grants. This is where universities are also a main contributing factor to the problem.


Nationally, only 13% of university students are from the poorest backgrounds. Although numbers entering Higher Education in the UK has risen since fifty years ago – one sixteenth of students in the 1960s, to a third of students today – pupils who have richer parents are 50% likely to go to university over those from the poorest neighbourhoods who are only 10% likely.

There are positive trends inherent however: females are approximately 20% more likely to enter Higher Education, and those students from deprived backgrounds that do manage to enter Higher Education often perform well and more often go further to postgraduate study than those from more affluent backgrounds. The access is the stifling part.

UK universities have a distinct ‘three tier’ system: Oxbridge, Russell Group and post-1992 ‘polytechnic’ universities, that tend to reinforce socio-economic segregations. For example, since the 1970s, Oxford and Cambridge universities have only increased their admittance of students from deprived backgrounds by an average of 3%. Furthermore, privately educated and white students have a greater chance of being admitted to these universities even when academic marks of other state educated or ethnic minority candidates are higher.

Many investigations implicate that university admittance goes beyond pure, fair merit. Even if standardising academic achievements relative to quality of differing schooling, personal statements required for university applications are expected to demonstrate what ‘extra special’ wider opportunities and experiences students have got themselves involved in, to complement their academia. This is subjective however, because inherent inequalities determine whether young people can become engaged in such extra-curricular activities beyond formal education.


Schools, family, Higher Education institutions and government all hold accountability to each other, but cause of education access inequality in the UK is entrenched among them all. Far from a mild inequality, children from such different socio-economic and family backgrounds – for example, 40% of children in London live in poverty – are expected to have had the same education opportunities.  Where this is recognised though, there is mostly insufficient help.

Such great disparity in education opportunities in a society that is supposed to be leadingly democratic, indiscriminate, and that campaigns welfare, is fundamentally appalling and hypocritically backward.

For wider literature on the current issues of education inequality and social mobility in the UK, a report by The Sutton Trust (2012) provides a comprehensive overview, including different political responses.

Gauri Kangai


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