Using sound evidence to bear down on educational inequality

Raj Patel, Impact Fellow at Understanding Society, University of Essex.

Longitudinal studies can help education organisations, business and charities tackle educational inequality because they follow the lives of people over time.

As argued by many, we should not take the level of educational inequality as a given. Other developed countries demonstrate better performance. The coming together of education organisations, business and charities in the form of the Fair Education Alliance to tackle this most critical of issues represents a significant step in improving the prospects for thousands of young people.

Educational inequality is a factor across all the stages of education and it is important to tackle the problem as children grow up, move through the system and into the labour market. Each stage of education matters as it opens up or restricts further opportunities – and the high costs of inequality means that identifying ‘what works’ has to be central to mission.

The interaction between institutional performance, parental background, household circumstances, non-cognitive and language skills, aspirations and behaviours, gender, ethnicity, disability, deprivation and geography all combine to create a complex environment in which to address the problem. Indeed, the effects of policy and practice at all stages of education can only be properly measured over a (long) period of time.

FEA members can now access a major research resource in the form of a world leading longitudinal household panel survey called Understanding Society. This is an independent scientific and policy resource for explaining the changing circumstances of people in the UK and understanding the causes and consequences of deep-rooted social problems.

The Study’s explanatory power and causal insights come from its unique longitudinal design, which annually tracks the same young people and adults over time. Understanding Society is a multi-purpose study, with data on demographics and key domains: education, family, mental and physical health, subjective wellbeing, employment, income, expenditure, wealth, time use, behaviours, housing, transport, neighbourhoods, attitudes and more.

It can be used to examine the interaction between factors associated with young people, their household circumstances and (currently) school attainment to help pinpoint where effort may be best targeted. As FEA members work in and beyond education they have the capacity to understand different dimensions to the problem and leverage effort. Equally, members can use the data and evidence to influence policy, particularly where societal changes or policies external to education risk putting breaks on effort - or can help accelerate the goal of reducing the gap.

 The Study is relevant to many aspects of tackling educational inequality, for example:

  • Understanding who is making progress or getting left behind and explaining variations between groups and pathways.
  • We know that low attainment is linked to poverty but this not simply due to economic circumstances. Social and cultural factors also matter. What parents do matters but doesn’t explain the entire picture, whilst some children from low income backgrounds have strong compensating resources.
  • Learning more about the role of social and emotional wellbeing – with new fields of research examining factors such as stress. There is, for example, little current evidence to show that low aspirations are an important mechanism.
  • Evaluating the impact of relevant policies and their interaction with education by looking at the picture before, during and after the policy to help drive innovation and policy effectiveness.

A diverse range of education, youth and family research is being undertaken with the data, with already a number of papers published. For example, one study examined how young people’s aspirations are affected by gender, ethnicity and class whilst another looked at the impact of different schooling systems on income inequality in local areas.

About Understanding Society

Set within a household context, the Study follows the lives of all individuals within 40,000 households (initially, in 2009 at Wave 1) and incorporates the long-running British Household Panel Survey (BHPS), which started in 1991. Children aged 10 to 15 undertake a self-completion questionnaire and join the adult panel at the age of 16 (Rising 16s).

Consents from panel members have also been collected for linkage to external administrative data, with linkage to the National Pupil Database for England (NPD). This includes attainment data from ages 5-18 as well as absences and exclusions. Understanding Society is also linked to identifiers of schools that children attend or recently attended. The combined data allows research into issues such as:

  • segregation
  • the effect of school characteristics on educational and other life outcomes
  • parental school choice

How to access the data and latest evidence

Whilst experts at the Institute for Social and Economic Research (ISER) provide the scientific leadership for Understanding Society, the data are released through the UK Data Service (UKDS).

For researchers and analysts Understanding Society’s ‘Getting Started’ Section and the Education Topic Guide is a good place to start. Evidence users can access findings through our Insights publication, which in 2016 included theme on education, or by searching the publications database. If you prefer a face to face briefing about the Study please contact Raj Patel (

Raj Patel is the Impact Fellow at Understanding Society, University of Essex.