Informing the debate on educational reform and socio-economic inequality


University research informs government policy, to help fight the effects of inequality in education.

What was the problem? 

The effect of social and economic inequality on education runs deep. Pupils from poorer families face very different life outcomes to wealthier children.

Government policy has attempted to narrow this inequality. The introduction of comprehensive schools was one such policy. Educational Maintenance Allowance, which paid young people to remain in education, was another.

This body of research seeks to track the effect of policy on education. This includes failures as well as successes. The outcome is recommendations for future policies, which try to make education a more equal part of society.

What did we do? 

Research into inequality has been carried out at the University of Edinburgh since 1997. This programme is still ongoing, and works alongside UK-wide research.

Much of the research takes the form of social surveys. These are large-scale and high-quality. Taking statistics from such studies gives researchers insight into education policy.

The research found that some policies could improve equality in schools. However, it also found that these improvements are limited.

It compared Scotland to England. Scotland uses comprehensive schooling. The research found this to be less unequal than the English system where schools compete in a market. Cut in England in 2010, the Educational Maintenance Allowance also increases equality, both financial and gender-related.

However, the studies also found that the comprehensive schooling did not help social equality overall. Changes to higher education also helped wealthier children more than poorer ones. This meant that even though some low-income students benefitted, the distance between social classes remains.

Two reports highlighted areas for improvements as well as praising many strengths in Scottish education: HM Inspector's 'Improving Scottish Education' and 'Quality and Equity of Schooling in Scotland' by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
Education Scotland website
What happened next? 

The University of Edinburgh research contributed to a report by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in 2007. This report influenced the Scottish ‘Curriculum for Excellence’ used in schools. The Curriculum for Excellence website mentions the report, along with a report called ‘Improving Scottish Education’. This report also cited the OECD research. This research has been very influential at many levels of Scottish education policy.

Edinburgh researchers were invited to present work to the OECD review panel. They have also been invited to discussions by the Scottish Government, and the Scottish Qualifications Authority, among many influential public bodies. Although the research has a Scottish focus, it has also been presented to the National Assembly for Wales and the (UK) National Equalities Panel.

The research has also engaged with the public directly. Research results are summarised online, and a report called Education and Poverty was sent to Scotland’s largest teacher’s union before the 2011 Scottish election.

Professor Lindsay Paterson’s work has been mentioned in mainstream media including the Times, Sunday Times, Scotsman and Herald. He has also appeared on BBC1 Scotland, BBC2’s Newsnight Scotland, and BBC Radio Scotland. The Scottish Government commissioned Paterson’s most recent work. It discusses philanthropy in schools, and continues to draw on this body of research.

About the researcher(s)


Research unit

Subject area:
  • Social Policy


  • Economic and Social Research Council
  • The Scottish Government

Related study programmes