Schools can develop strategies to improve fairness and freedom in terms of their students’ future education and employment opprtunities, says Diane Bebbington

Without doubt the educational attainments of young people have a profound influence on their futures and it is still the case that discrimination has a major impact on educational outcomes.

Drawing on data from the new report Fairness and Freedom: The Final Report of the Equalities Review (, this article considers the impact of educational achievement on life chances, how factors such as disability, ethnicity, socio-economic group and gender may influence educational achievements and how the forthcoming Commission for Equality and Human Rights (CEHR) proposes to address these problems. The role of schools is then considered.

Achievement and employment

Fairness and Freedom once again reminds us of the startling advantage that educational success is likely to bestow. A university degree provides better opportunities in terms of stability of employment and better pay. In 2002 people with a degree or equivalent were almost four times less likely to be unemployed than people with no qualification. Graduates are also likely to earn twice as much as people who have no qualifications. Employment is clearly a key factor in mitigating poverty and all the consequences that low income may bring.

Schools play a fundamental part in preparing young people for the world of work and further and higher education. An important role for schools is to ensure that the impact of inequalities is minimised as much as possible. A previous article, ‘Equality for all?’ drew attention to the influence of discrimination on educational achievement. Fairness and Freedom highlights areas deserving urgent attention at all levels of education.


The knock-on effect of disadvantage from school into employment is very apparent among disabled young people. The most powerful predictor of unemployment at age 21 is said to be not being in employment or education or training for six months or more between the ages of 16 and 18. Disabled people are at greater risk of being in this group. In terms of higher education, disabled students number only one in 20 undergraduates compared with one in 14 people aged 18-30 in the general population. As regards work, more than twice as many disabled people are out of work than non-disabled people.


The link between ethnicity and educational outcomes was recently highlighted when it was shown that ethnic minority students are significantly less likely to gain a first class degree than their majority ethnic peers. Here appears a contradiction – ethnic minority undergraduates are over-represented in higher education as a whole, particularly those from Chinese or Indian backgrounds. In terms of employment, Fairness and Freedom points out that Pakistani and Bangladeshi women together with disabled people and mothers are most vulnerable to employment disadvantage compared with other groups.

Class and gender

A major focus of higher education policy in recent years has been that of trying to increase the representation of people from disadvantaged groups, particularly those from lower socio-economic backgrounds. One such initiative is Aimhigher, funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the DfES. This scheme runs activities such as funded summer schools for young people who may not have much knowledge of the higher education system. Progress, however, is slow and as Fairness and Freedom points out, the huge expansion in student numbers that has taken place in the last three decades is due almost entirely to an increase in the numbers of students from the higher socio-economic groups.

While inequalities persist for women in the labour market, girls are continuing to outperform boys in many areas of education. A group around which there is concern is that of white boys from poor backgrounds. It is this group that is most unlikely to be able to access higher education.

CEHR proposals

Given the complex and persisting nature of educational disadvantage and the way this relates to inequalities within the labour market, far-reaching changes are clearly needed. The report recognises the need for long-term, phased strategies. With reference to education, the report recommends that the following targets be addressed by the DfES, Scottish Executive and Welsh Assembly:

  • reduce disproportionate access and use of pre-school provision for ethnic minority pupils, including a focus on better provision for disabled children
  • narrow gaps in school-age educational attainment for ethnic minority pupils, including a focus on gaps in the primary phase
  • reduce disproportionate exclusions of ethnic minority pupils and pupils with special educational needs, including, in England, milestones on implementation of the priority review of Black exclusions.

Recommendations are made on data monitoring including the collecting and publishing data on the attainment of disabled pupils and by type of special educational needs and collecting data on pupils from ethnic minority groups with below average attainment. Policy recommendations as regards older children include undertaking research on educational success amongst different ethnic minority groups and tackling institutional segregation between pre and post-1992 universities and differential higher education outcomes by gender, disability and ethnicity.

What can schools do?

Schools play an essential role in supporting the drive towards greater equality in education and the future employment of their pupils by having in place equality policies and carrying out procedures such as impact assessments that measure the effects of these policies. They can also:

  • make full use of resources and advice on equalities issues, for example from the Disability Rights Commission
  • be aware of diversity in subject and career choices, including issues around gender stereotyping
  • tackle negative attitudes towards groups such as disabled staff and pupils (see

Dr Diane Bebbington is director of Knowledge Perspectives.

First published in Learning for Life, May 2007