School can be tough. All the way from pre-school to angsty teen years, people can struggle with the education system. From issues with work and misbehaving to bullying, everyone encounters negative experiences whilst growing up. Whilst education affects everyone differently, there are some groups of people that generally face more problems due to structural inequalities in the system.
A widely spread inequality is between boys and girls. This is definitely a well-known phenomenon that doesn’t just cause damage during the years of education, but has long lasting effects throughout an individual’s life.
Specifically, the inequality towards boys in the education system has been present for some time now. In the 1990s, when asked to comment on boys’ lower performance and bad behaviour, New Labour School Standards Minister said, “[We] should not simply accept with a shrug of the shoulder that boys will be boys.” Sadly, it appears that this is exactly what has continued to happen, and boys are continuing to do less well in schools. The 2010 report How Fair is Britain? showed that early on, boys slip behind in problem solving, reasoning and social and emotional development. By aged five, 53% of boys had reached the expected level in writing compared with 72% of girls. This disparity continued to GCSEs, to A-level and on to university.
At school, I watched some of my brightest and most intellectually engaged male friends wrestle continuously with the school system – many of them ended up dropping out or failing their A-levels. The options outside of school weren’t great either; apprenticeships were hard to come by, NVQs were undervalued, and if you wanted to go to university, you pretty much had to do A-levels. From this experience, I realised how we experience school and the opportunities available to us has a knock-on effect on our future.
Gender inequalities are not the only issues present in the education system; schools often struggle to cater for students of varying abilities. At my school, the brightest students were pushed intensely by teachers – I mean, obviously, they want their students to get good grades and go to the best universities. It reflects pretty well on them. Students who struggled hugely with their work were given huge amounts of extra support. Students in the middle were largely ignored – as long as they weren’t failing, it was fine. This left big groups of people demotivated and disinterested, not a combination for either academic success or feeling good about yourself.
A huge variety of societal issues create inequality in the education system, including race, ethnicity, culture and socio-economic backgrounds. The How Fair is Britain? study showed that only a third of children who qualify for free school meals, reach a “good” level of growth by age 5, compared to more than half who don’t qualify for the meals. (For boys in this group, the number was closer to a quarter.) This idea was not just seen amongst young children, but throughout school; pupils from the least affluent families were half as likely to get good GCSE results, and twice as likely to be excluded.
The education we receive impacts us for the entirety of our lives. Many of my friends now, especially those who work in law firms, or for the government, still feel that they missed out by not attending Oxbridge. The whole point of offering free education till the age of 18 is to give everyone an equal starting point, but this is simply not the case. The inequalities within the education system, (including universities), need addressing.
What’s more, research conducted by the YMCA concluded that negative educational experiences cause lasting damage to wellbeing in later life leaving some 30% less happy. Their research showed that the main areas of wellbeing affected by education were self-confidence, the ability to make decisions and whether they feel loved- to name a few. And if young people are exposed to negative experiences in the places they spend most of their lives growing up, we are fostering generations of people with low self-esteem who don’t feel capable of bettering themselves.
Studies conducted by King’s College also reveal that bad experiences during education result in an increased chance of depression and anxiety in later life. I don't claim to know the answer to this problem, but if we are working towards bettering young people's wellbeing, we really need to target some of the places they encounter these negative feelings in the first place.