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Promoting Equality in the UK Primary School Education System Essay

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Updated: Aug 24th, 2022


Schools were once unimportant educational centers that served small groups of people. However, today, they have grown to become hubs of knowledge exchange and cultural innovation (Brandes and Ginnis, 2001; Bell, Bolam and Cubillo, 2002). This evolution has permeated different levels of learning and primary school education in the UK is no exception. Past efforts aimed at improving the efficacy of school systems focused on expanding access to educational opportunities but today, similar initiatives strive for opportunities to make them more effective and inclusive for all groups of learners.

The current debate on improvement of learning outcomes in the UK strives to examine how educational standards can be raised and inequality tackled at the same time. This goal is alive despite some observers making admissions that a single policy cannot be used to address both challenges at the same time (Kerr and West, 2010). Subject to this acknowledgement, technology has emerged as one of the most promising tools for addressing some of the above-mentioned problems because it is linked to improved educational outcomes and reduced levels of inequality. This is why it is depicted in this study as a basis for making changes in the education structure by making it more inclusive and responsive to the needs of underprivileged learners.

Research Aim

To find out how to minimize inequality in UK primary schools through inclusion.

Research Questions

  1. What is the nature of the relationship between inequalities in the UK primary school education system and its administrative structures?
  2. To what extent can technology improve the effectiveness of school structures to minimize inequalities?

Importance of Study

School improvements have come a long way since the early 1960s when there was skepticism regarding the importance of learning institutions in the first place. This cynicism was informed by the use of Marxist ideologies in designing education systems to realize social and economic growth (Hopkins, Ainscow, and West, 1994). Relative to this view, some people argued that socioeconomic progress should be domiciled in societies and not schools, while others believed that schools created a group of workers trained to accept things as they are, thereby promoting existing unequal systems (Leithwood, Jantzi and Steinbach, 1999). However, over time, a lot of progress has been in appreciating the importance of education.

The 21st century has seen the emergence of new challenges in learning because of the realization that poor educational outcomes and socioeconomic inequality have been entrenched in current educational systems, thereby disenfranchising students from minority and low socioeconomic groups. These issues dominate current discussions regarding education inequality in the 21st century learning environment and how new and more innovative methods of improving school systems could alleviate the growing problem.

Context of Study

The context of this research is the primary school education system in the UK. This stage of education involves children who are between 5 and 11 years receiving basic education.

Reason for Choosing Topic

Class differences in the society and their effects on educational achievement have caused inequalities in education. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the problem because concerns abound regarding the role that online education will play in crystalizing learning gaps that exist among privileged and disenfranchised children. A recent survey to sample teachers’ views regarding the impact of the health crisis on students’ learning outcomes showed that education practitioners are worried about the role of virtual education in entrenching inequalities among the aforementioned groups of students as schools transition to online learning (Jain, Lall and Singh, 2021). Researchers also opine that economically weaker students will become hard to reach, thereby making teachers incapable of providing them with education services (Jain, Lall and Singh, 2021). Therefore, technology-based solutions aimed at alleviating the crisis have been criticized for being ineffective when employed in hard-to-reach communities. Therefore, it is pertinent to understand how existing education structures propagate these inequalities and the role that technology could play in alleviating the problem.

Scope of the Literature Review

The literature review process was undertaken by searching for books and journals from reputable online databases. The keywords used to perform the analysis included “inequality” “primary school” and “UK.” The initial research process generated 6,708 articles from three journal databases – Sage Journals, Emerald Insight, and Elsevier, while books were obtained from Google Scholar and Google Books. Afterward, the materials were scrutinized for their relevance to the research topic with an emphasis on finding articles that talked about primary education in the UK in particular. Additionally, books and journals that discussed inclusivity were prioritized over those that did not and the number of articles available for review reduced to 30.

Critical Analysis of the Literature

Researchers have investigated the relationship between negative student learning outcomes and socioeconomic backgrounds with varied outcomes. Key sections of this literature review describe the relationship between students’ socioeconomic backgrounds and educational outcomes as well as the impact that school structures have on education inequalities. The analysis is later contextualized within the UK primary school education setting and inferences are drawn to known theories underpinning learning development in formative years of education.

Theoretical Foundation

Researchers have come up with different theories to explain varying levels of academic achievement and understand the role that students’ socioeconomic backgrounds play in predicting this outcome. As a result, four schools of thought have emerged with varying perspectives regarding the impact of education on an individual’s life. Functionalism is one of them and it suggests that education is meant to help people become functional members of society (Chapman et al., 2012). Conflict theories propose a different ideology because they are based on the belief that education is designed to promote social inequality (Hirsch, 2016). Their view largely explains the educational challenges witnessed in the UK primary school environment because widening achievement gaps have created socioeconomic equality for a long time.

Researchers have gone a step further to understand varied forms of inequality in the education system and found out that feminism is one of its subtle manifestations and it is rooted in sexist ideologies ingrained in the school system by creating inequalities in gender achievement gaps (Bansal, 2018; Coe, 2009). This school of thought demonstrates that inequalities do not only exist among minorities or students who hail from families with lower socioeconomic status but also across the gender spectrum. Consequently, it is imperative to view inequalities in the education sector from a broader perspective involving gender and socioeconomic variables.

Several studies have tried to adopt a holistic strategy in investigating learning gaps among students from low-income communities and those of privileged backgrounds. For example, in an investigation conducted by Kustatscher (2017) in Scottish primary schools, it was established that social class differences impacted intergenerational interactions among children aged 5 and seven years. It was also affirmed that these class divisions intersected with gender, race, and ethnic strata in society (Kustatscher, 2017). Consequently, there is a need to understand the process of tackling inequality in the education system holistically and involve young people in discussions about the same issue.

Symbolic interactionism is also another school of thought that has emerged from studies that have investigated the role of the school environment in influencing students’ achievement levels. Associated research studies point to the need to strengthen student-teacher relationships to improve educational outcomes. In this context, inclusivity is expected to be achieved through strong teacher-student bonds.

Relationship between Students’ Socioeconomic Background and Educational Outcomes

Studies have shown that social factors influence educational outcomes and, by extension, people’s wealth and ability to prosper. This statement has been supported by anecdotal evidence showing the psychosocial link between non-economic factors affecting wealth creation, such as people’s attitudes, beliefs, ethos and socioeconomic background, and educational outcomes (Cebolla-Boado, Radl and Salazar, 2017). This relationship has been characterized by the presence of positive environmental stimuli for students who have access to resources, improved educational outcomes, and better standards of living.

Relative to the above assertion, one notable scholar, Pierre Bourdieu, suggested that students tend to conform to dominant ideologies through psychological and behavioral influences harbored by societies (Griffiths, 2018). The relationship between these moderating factors and educational outcomes has been juxtaposed against the opportunities offered by learning in promoting learners’ progress in life with the dominant assertion being that education seeks to promote equality by expecting students to have that which it does not give – cultural competency. Without it, it is difficult for students to attain high levels of educational achievement. Furthermore, but they can only be transmitted through family structures and community influences, which vary across the spectrum of students’ backgrounds.

Impact of School Structures on Education Inequalities

School structures affect learning outcomes and teaching methodologies in various education settings. For example, admission policies have been linked with inclusive practices in the UK education sector (Rayner, 2017). Policy discourses have also shown the difficulty of separating the quest to improve educational outcomes with inequality in schools (Elmore, 2008). Additionally, studies show that school policies are often formulated within a sociocultural setting, thereby highlighting the role of regional differences in defining school outcomes (Evers and Kneyber, 2016). For example, school ethos and values have been associated with policy discourses and teaching practices (Rayner, 2017). While these insights are relevant in understanding how sociocultural factors play an important role in influencing school outcomes, the link has mostly been established in studies that involve secondary school teachers and students (Rayner, 2017). This means that there is inadequate research done in the primary school education context to determine whether the same link between raising education standards and tackling inequality is valid.

To understand the impact of school structures on learning outcomes, researchers have investigated strategies adopted by education institutions to minimize gaps in achievement between students who come from low socioeconomic backgrounds and those who hail from privileged backgrounds (Glickman, 2003). For example, Sierens et al. (2020) surveyed 1,741 pupils who were in fourth grade to find out whether pre-schooling helped to promote equity in education. It was established that the duration of education did not have an impact on their attainment levels. However, this finding was found to be true for certain subject areas, such as sciences and mathematics, but not in humanities.

Relative to the above findings Woldehanna (2016) conducted a similar study to investigate the relationship between inequality, pre-school education, and cognitive development in Ethiopia among students aged between five and eight years and found out that pre-school attendance mediated about a third of the effects of family background on students’ educational outcomes. Limited public investment in pre-primary school education exacerbated these inequalities, thus highlighting the need for government involvement in mitigating educational gaps.

The focus on duration and attendance of pre-school education in managing learning gaps has created a greater interest in this subject area with newer studies focusing on understanding the extent that pre-school education could help to minimize the effects of socio-cultural backgrounds on learning outcomes. In one such study, Cebolla-Boado, Radl, and Salazar (2017) obtained data from 119,008 respondents spread across 28 developing countries and found that pre-school education helped to minimize the negative effects of low socioeconomic backgrounds on learners’ attainment levels. However, this effect was weaker for students who had highly educated parents. Therefore, it was recognized that parental involvement in children’s education helped to alleviate the effects of low socioeconomic backgrounds on student’s learning.

Inequality in the UK

The structure of the primary school education system in the UK has changed since the late 1960s because of several policies and education reforms that have been instituted since then. The most instrumental piece of law that has been introduced from the time includes The 1988 Education Reform Act, which encouraged learning institutions to be competitive as a precondition for improving their performance. Additionally, changes in the age of starting school, school size, types of primary schools, roles of local authorities, and formations of federations have contributed to additional changes to the structure of the primary school education system (Ainscow and West, 2006). At the same time, collaboration, changes in the provision of early childhood education and care services have further helped policymakers to examine the structure of school holistically.

For more than 20 years, the official government policy on the improvement of education standards in the UK has focused on promoting social justice. Part of the attention has been on tackling inequality and raising education standards for all cadres of learners (Bush, Bell and Middlewood, 2019). Stakeholders have adopted these measures after analyzing recent research evidence revealing that poorly performing schools reinforce inequality in educational attainment (Ainscow et al., 2011; Ainscow et al., 2012). Indeed, some existing policy structures governing teaching and learning activities have entrenched school failure, especially among underprivileged learners.

Regardless of the aforementioned policy changes and reforms, education inequality rates in the UK are higher among major western countries. The United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) recently surveyed to assess education inequality among 41 countries and found that it affected student educational outcomes at the primary school education level and subsequent opportunities that affect a person’s socioeconomic outcomes after childhood (Bryk et al., 2015). Education inequality in the UK is only a manifestation of a greater problem of social inequity in society, which has affected different sectors of society. Several reasons have been advanced to explain gaps that have caused this phenomenon.

Researchers such as Parker et al. (2016) have done a comparative analysis of countries and found that educational differentials were greater in countries that have high levels of curricular stratification. The researchers also established that primary effects influencing educational outcomes, such as socioeconomic status, were more impactful in countries that had a higher curriculum track record (Bryk et al., 2015). Therefore, the efficiency that education stakeholders evaluated, or reviewed, their curricula affected learning gaps. Relative to this assertion, Parker et al. (2016) say that highly stratified countries have a higher probability of pegging educational expectations on achievement outcomes relative to those that have a weaker social stratification framework. These findings suggest that the structural makeup of a society has an impact on its educational outcomes.


This literature review shows an emerging trend where researchers are affirming the inefficiencies and weaknesses of current educational systems and their inability to address systemic weaknesses that have disadvantaged students from underprivileged backgrounds. However, most of the articles analyzed are descriptive in the sense that they only identify and define the scope of the problem with little understanding of how to develop innovative and holistic solutions, especially those of a technological nature, which would appeal to the multifaceted nature of the research issue.

Reference List

Ainscow, M. and West, M. (eds.) (2006) Improving urban schools: leadership and collaboration. Buckingham: Open University Press.

Ainscow, M. et al. (2011) Social inequality: can schools narrow the gap? Macclesfield: British Educational Research Association.

Ainscow, M. et al. (2012) Developing equitable education systems. London: Routledge.

Bansal, D. (2018) ‘Science education in India and feminist critiques of science’, Contemporary Education Dialogue, 15(2), pp. 164-186.

Bell, L., Bolam, R. and Cubillo, L. (2002) A systematic review of the impact of school leadership and management on student outcomes. London: EPPI-Centre, Social Science Research Unit, Institute of Education.

Brandes, D. and Ginnis, P. (2001) A guide to student-centered learning. Cheltenham: Nelson Thornes.

Bryk, A. S. et al. (2015) Learning to improve: how America’s schools can get better at getting better. Cambridge: Harvard Education Press.

Bush, T., Bell, L. and Middlewood, D. (eds.) (2019) Principles of educational leadership and management. 3rd edn. London: SAGE.

Cebolla-Boado, H., Radl, J. and Salazar, L. (2017) ‘Preschool education as the great equalizer? A cross-country study into the sources of inequality in reading competence’, Acta Sociologica, 60(1), pp. 41-60.

Chapman, C. et al. (2012) School effectiveness and improvement research, policy and practice. Abingdon: Routledge.

Coe, R. (2009) ‘School improvement: reality and illusion’, British Journal of Educational Studies, 57(4), pp. 363-379.

Elmore, R. F. (2008) School reform from the inside out. Cambridge: Harvard Education Press.

Evers, J. and Kneyber, R. (eds.) (2016) Flip the system: changing education from the ground up. Abingdon: Routledge.

Glickman, C. (2003) Holding sacred ground: pretending not to know what we know. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Gorard, S. (2010) ‘Serious doubts about school effectiveness’, British Educational Research Journal, 36(5), pp. 645-766.

Griffiths, A. (2018) ‘Using exploratory factor analysis and Bourdieu’s concept of the illusion to examine inequality in an English school’, Power and Education, 10(1), pp. 40-57.

Harber, C. and Davies, L. (2001) School management and effectiveness in developing countries. London: Continuum.

Harris, A. and Bennett, N. (eds.) (2001) School effectiveness and improvement: alternate perspectives. New York: Continuum.

Hirsch, E. D. (2016) Why knowledge matters: rescuing our children from failed educational theories. Cambridge: Harvard Education Press.

Hopkins, D., Ainscow, M. and West, M. (1994) School improvement in an era of change. London: Cassell.

Jain, S., Lall, M. and Singh, A. (2021) ‘Teachers’ voices on the impact of COVID-19 on school education: are Ed-tech companies really the panacea?’, Contemporary Education Dialogue, 18(1), pp. 58-89.

Kellock, A. (2020) ‘Children’s well-being in the primary school: a capability approach and community psychology perspective’, Childhood, 27(2), pp. 220-237.

Kerr, K. and West, M. (eds.) (2010) Insight 2 – social inequality: can schools narrow the gap? Macclesfield: British Educational Research Association.

Kustatscher, M. (2017) ‘Young children’s social class identities in everyday life at primary school: the importance of naming and challenging complex inequalities’, Childhood, 24(3), pp. 381-395.

Leithwood, K., Jantzi, D. and Steinbach, R. (1999) Changing leadership for changing times. Maidenhead: Open University Press.

Medwell, J. and Wray, D. (2019) ‘Primary homework in England: the beliefs and practices of teachers in primary schools’, Education, 47(2), pp. 191-204.

Parker, P. D. et al. (2016) ‘A multination study of socioeconomic inequality in expectations for progression to higher education: the role of between-school tracking and ability stratification’, American Educational Research Journal, 53(1), pp. 6-32.

Rayner, M. S. (2017) ‘Admissions policies and risks to equity and educational inclusion in the context of school reform in England’, Management in Education, 31(1), pp. 27-32.

Sierens, S. et al. (2020) ‘Does pre-schooling contribute to equity in education? Participation in universal pre-school and fourth-grade academic achievement’, European Educational Research Journal, 19(6), pp. 564-586.

Woldehanna, T. (2016) ‘Inequality, preschool education and cognitive development in Ethiopia: implication for public investment in pre-primary education’, International Journal of Behavioral Development, 40(6), pp. 509-516.

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