Britain’s flagging productivity is commonly thought to be the root of the country’s present economic struggles. And as successive governments have painfully discovered – not least Liz Truss’s – there is no quick fix for it. Looking longer-term and investing in the skills of the future workforce satisfies nobody’s desire for instant results. Yet it’s actually the best lever ministers can employ to reverse the slide.
A strong, internationally competitive economy requires a flourishing pipeline of home-grown talent coming through schools, colleges and universities and into employment or entrepreneurship. Yet many of the future scientists, mathematicians, engineers and start-up gurus that this country needs to produce simply don’t make it through. The reason? Our education system blocks them off. Social mobility has stalled, and the conveyor belt of talent has come to a grinding halt alongside it.
In the UK we now routinely squander the potential of highly able but disadvantaged pupils. This perpetuates a generational cycle of inequality and compounds the country’s slumping productivity.
Analysis by the Sutton Trust, which I founded and chair, reveals just how drastic the situation has become. We examined a cohort of 2,500 young people from disadvantaged backgrounds who exhibited high academic potential at the end of primary school, and compared their progress at secondary school with that of their similarly placed but non-disadvantaged peers. The findings entirely disperse any fond notion of a level playing field.
Bright but poor students are now nearly twice as likely as their similarly talented, more affluent peers to drop out of the top third of attainment at GCSE, achieving on average a whole grade lower per subject. In 2021, 62 per cent of privileged high-potential pupils attained five or more grades 7-9 at GCSE, whereas less than 40 per cent of their less well-off peers achieved the same.
While the inequalities that hinder academic attainment emerge early in life, they intensify in the secondary years.