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Image of Professor Anna Vignoles and Professor Madeleine Arnot

Education investment needs to be sustained to halt widening inequality, say Cambridge experts

Sustained investment in education and opportunities for poorer children is essential to reduce inequality in the UK, Cambridge education expert Prof Anna Vignoles has said at a Rustat Conference held at Jesus College.

Prof Anna Vignoles, Fellow and University Professor of Education (1938), argued that early investment in a child’s development is crucial, and this investment needs to continue as they grow up to produce genuine long-term benefits for the poorest children.

"We all know that family background has a massive influence on how well a child does in their education. Only around a fifth of the poorest children get five good GCSEs whilst three quarters of the richest do. Supporting parents on low incomes so they can offer a good early home learning environment is still essential," said Vignoles.

"However, we need to continue to invest in educational support throughout the teen years for poorer children so that the early investment is not wasted. To give an example, because there wasn't sustained investment in the ethnic minority children on the Head Start programme, it had less long term impact as the children went on to poor quality schools (1). It would be naive to think that education can 'solve' the social mobility issue. But certainly it is key. At the moment, children from poorer backgrounds are much less likely to go on to earn good wages, largely because they do not do so well in education. Although any investment is better than no investment, if we are to make real progress we need systematic and sustained support for poorer children throughout their schooling career. This is the best way to improve their life chances."

Prof Vignoles was speaking on a panel of experts at the Rustat Conference on Inequality held at Jesus College, Cambridge.

Prof Madeleine Arnot, University Professor in Sociology of Education, Fellow and Director of Studies for Education, Jesus College, internationally known for her research on gender and education, was also on the panel. She supported Vignoles' argument, adding:

“Such financial support needs to go hand in hand with encouraging teachers to combine forces and collectively identify ways of closing the social class gap in education, in much the same way as they did when closing gender gaps in education. The professional community needs directly to address the educational and social difficulties that working class children are known to experience in the classroom, ensuring that they feel that they are respected and that they are able to fulfil their full potential. Consulting such pupils, even at primary age, can provide valuable insights into where problems lie and what can be done to improve their learning.

“Young people, irrespective of background, need to share access to the same forms of knowledge and the same quality of education. Promoting ‘freedom of choice’, whether of schools, subjects, or career paths, as a means to create social mobility is problematic since ‘choice’ is not equally distributed either because of material disadvantages or because the ‘long shadow’ of unequal work prospects can cause disadvantaged young people to self-limit their options.”

The Rustat Conferences are an initiative of Jesus College, Cambridge. They offer an opportunity for decision-makers from the frontlines of politics, business, finance, the media and education to discuss vital issues with leading academic experts.

(1) Blakemore, Sarah-Jayne, and Suparna Choudhury. "Development of the adolescent brain: implications for executive function and social cognition." Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 47, no. 3-4 (2006): 296-312.


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