Rich countries let too many children fall behind in education

What level of inequality in children’s education should rich societies tolerate?

There will always be inequality in children’s educational achievements, but our new study argues that we should look to the countries with the smallest gaps between the best- and worst-performing students, as some of these countries can show us how to achieve the best of both worlds: low inequality and high standards. Our report ranks EU and OECD countries on a measure of inequality in educational achievement ­— the gap between the 10th and 90th percentiles of reading scores at age 15 — in Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2015.

Inequalities are everywhere, but are evident in some countries more than others. Latvia and Ireland have the smallest gaps: just over 220 score points separate the best- and worst-performing students. This means that, even in these countries, some students are far behind others in reading, as the OECD notionally equates 30 score points to one year of schooling. Bulgaria and Malta rank lowest, with gaps of more than 300 score points.

Notably, there is no trade-off between equality and quality in education systems. In fact, smaller gaps in test results tend to be seen in countries where there are higher average scores with more children reaching a basic level of proficiency in reading (see figure below). Thus, countries with poorer average outcomes also have more children who fall behind their peers.

The same holds for primary school. Countries with larger gaps between the best- and worst-performing students tend to have lower levels of reading proficiency around the age of 10. This is true for 30 rich countries in the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) 2016. The gaps in reading proficiency at that age are already so large that in some more equal countries some children can only process simple informational texts while others can interpret complex literary passages.


More equal systems have higher standards

A bar graph with the following annotations: - across x-axis: per cent of children reaching level 2 reading proficiency; across y-axis: Performance gap in reading achievement. Pearson correlation = -0.64, p
© PISA 2015Percentage of students achieving basic reading proficiency at age 15 is higher where the performance gap is lower (2015).

There is also a socioeconomic aspect to these patterns. In both PIRLS and PISA, children with better-educated parents tend to do better at school – so larger gaps help propagate the cycle of inequality from one generation to the next. Factors beyond children’s control, such as gender, school location or immigration status, explain, on average, a fifth of the difference in reading scores at the age of 10 – a figure that goes up to 41% in Slovakia. Among these factors parental occupation emerges as a key circumstance. On average, it accounts for 12% of the difference in reading: a figure that ranges from 7% in Portugal to 33% in Slovakia.

Two young girls writing on their notebooks using pens.
© UNICEF/2018/Hämäläinen7th grade students doing class work in Kannelmäki Elementary School, Helsinki, Finland.

What can we do about it?

Schools can reduce differences linked to family background by providing quality teaching to all children. But some features of school systems can reinforce inequalities instead. The UNICEF report echoes OECD’s recent publications in calling for better awareness of the role of practices such as early selection into different educational programmes, within-school ability grouping and grade repetition. Often, children from different backgrounds also end up being segregated in different schools. When children from poorer families tend to end up in lower educational tracks, they are denied a fair start in life and the opportunity to fulfil their potential.


Yekaterina Chzhen, Anna Gromada and Gwyther Rees are lead authors of the newly released UNICEF report An Unfair Start: Inequality in Children’s Education in Rich Countries.


The Office of Research–Innocenti, is UNICEF’s dedicated research centre. It undertakes research on emerging or current issues to inform the strategic directions, policies and programmes of UNICEF and its partners, shape global debates on child rights and development, and inform the global research and policy agenda for all children, and particularly for the most vulnerable. Please visit us on Twitter and Facebook.

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked with “required.”