Fair Education Alliance Written evidence (EDU0024)


The Fair Education Alliance unites nearly 250 member organisations under a shared vision that no child’s educational success is limited by their socio-economic background. Our members (charities and social enterprises, think tanks, businesses and foundations, youth organisations, unions, universities and schools) are working collectively to create an inclusive system which:

-          gives all young people a rounded education, valuing their skills and wellbeing alongside attainment;

-          engages parents and communities of all backgrounds;

-          supports teachers and school leaders to stay and thrive in the schools with the greatest challenges;

-          gives all young people the knowledge, skills and awareness to succeed in life after school.

The evidence provided herein has been collected in consultation with our broad membership. We are submitting evidence because these questions are crucial to our work: the curriculum and accountability system holds the power to close or widen the current disadvantage gap, by engaging and supporting all pupils to thrive in school and life, or by failing to do this due to an overly narrow, punitive and exclusive system.


The effectiveness of the 11-16 curriculum in equipping young people with the skills they need to progress into post-16 education and employment in a future digital and green economy

The current curriculum leaves too many young people without the skills employers need; it also leaves a significant proportion without access to any routes to high-quality employment.

In an annual survey conducted by the Confederation of Business Industry (CBI) on the views of employers and employer representative bodies on what skills young people entering the workplace are typically lacking, clear patterns have emerged. Year-on-year between 2012 and 2019, employers report being dissatisfied with school leavers joining their workplace in relation to specific life skills: self-management, interpersonal skills (such as customer awareness and management) and problem solving.[1][2][3][4] This data suggests persistent underdevelopment in young people’s life skills in the last decade.

These skills are highly overlapping with ‘social and emotional skills’ and ‘essential skills’. ‘Social and emotional skills’ refer to the abilities to regulate one’s thoughts, emotions and behaviour, and commonly include perseverance, empathy, mindfulness, courage or leadership. These are linked to improved life outcomes and tend to decline in adolescence.[5] The essential skills measured by the Skills Builder Universal Framework for Essential Skills are listening, speaking, problem solving, creativity, staying positive, aiming high, leadership and teamwork.[6] In its most recent Essential Skills Tracker, Skills Builder found that higher levels of essential skills are correlated with higher incomes and life satisfaction.[7]

Further, essential skills can compensate for lower education levels, and a lack of skills can suppress the benefits of higher educational levels. Lower education level is associated with much better life outcomes when respondents report high essential skills. High education level, numeracy, and literacy – when not complemented with high essential skill levels – are associated with poorer life outcomes.[8]

We also know that developing social and emotional skills improves students’ attainment in maths and literacy. The Education Endowment Foundation’s recent review[9] suggests that successful SEL interventions in schools may drive, on average, four months of further progress in academic outcomes, with effects being higher for literacy (+4 months) than mathematics (+3 months). Skills Builder Partnership found similar benefits to essential skills, which largely overlap with social and emotional learning.[10] So, building these skills is also likely to help improve literacy and numeracy, which we know to have a significant impact on earnings and employment.[11]

Howev[12]er, those with other advantages tend to also have higher essential skills score: for example, those will the lowest skill scores are more likely to have attended a non-selective state school, more likely to live in the North of England, less likely to have had a parent attend university and less likely to have had parents that were engaged with their education. Further, those from more advantaged backgrounds and those who attended independent or selective schools have meaningfully higher levels of essential skills.[13]

We know that qualifications alone are not enough to close the gap between the percentage of wealthier and poorer young people not in education, employment or training.[14] Further, there is a clear relationship between skill score and the likelihood of an individual being in work or education.[15] Addressing gaps in what have historically been referred to as ‘soft’ skills could tackle the very hard inequalities currently present in post-16 education and employment: both the disadvantage gap that still exists for NEET young people, and the gap in destinations for disadvantaged young people, who are substantially less likely to enrol in apprenticeships or sixth form colleges after Key Stage 4.[16]

Therefore, the National Curriculum should focus on building the essential skills that young people need to thrive in all types of employment, and in life. The Skills Builder Universal Framework already provides an evidence-based structure for this. Further, the curriculum needs to allow for enough space for teachers and school leaders to engage with impactful interventions to build social and emotional learning and essential skills, rather than simply adding more demands into the current curriculum.


The impact of the 11-16 system on the motivation and confidence of pupils of all abilities:

Our current system leaves many pupils feeling undervalued and inadequate, and this is disproportionately so for poorer children and young people. The most recent Good Childhood Report by The Children’s Society found children reporting declining happiness with school and schoolwork, and also declining feeling that it is important to do well in exams. Further, poorer pupils reported significantly lower levels of happiness with school and schoolwork.[17] While a ‘sense of belonging’ -- the sense of being somewhere you can be confident that you will fit in and feel safe in who you are – is important to pupils’ learning and behaviour[18], our current system does not prioritise this. One in four young people feel they do not belong in school, and children from disadvantaged communities are twice as likely as their more advantaged peers to feel they don’t belong and four times more likely to be excluded.[19]

The DfE 2022 State of the Nation reveals that this is a worsening situation: the percentage of those reporting low happiness with school appears to have increased, and pupils who were eligible for free school meals were less likely to report being motivated to learn, being able to concentrate in class, feeling safe in school, and having a strong sense of belonging at school, compared to others.[20] Schools should be places where every child is supported to form meaningful relationships and feel safe and happy. Our current system does not prioritise or support this.

Our current comparative, results-oriented system can also dampen pupils’ extrinsic motivation and intellectual curiosity. In response to this question, Esther, a member of our Youth Steering Group, wrote:

‘I believe the education system has a hugely detrimental impact on the motivation and confidence of pupils of all abilities, as in my experience the over-emphasis on exams can place a huge strain on young people’s mental health. This has, in my opinion, a hugely damaging impact on the motivation for young people to research further into areas of interest, and display curiosity and passion for their subject, as their capacity is restricted by revision for endless end of term exams, mock exams and GCSEs. As well as this, the education system therefore instils into young people the idea that learning is a stressful experience, causing many to intrinsically associate what should be an explorative and exciting process into one of pressure, anxiety and tedium caused by the constant memorisation of facts, not because they are interesting but instead because they are expected by the examiner. What kind of education system fills young people with dread and stress rather than passion and curiosity?’

We must learn what we can about how the education system is impacting the young people it is meant to serve, equip schools with the time, knowledge and resources to respond to what we learn, and consider the experiences of young people in any new system we create. #BeeWell, a Greater Manchester programme that annually measures the wellbeing of young people and brings together a Coalition of Partners from across civil society to deliver meaningful, youth-centred actions as a result, is an example of how this can be done well.[21] Its survey has been created with experts and young people, with the results presented back to individual schools directly – not as a competitive league table.

The data collected and analysed by #BeeWell has enabled schools to better understand the experiences of their own students, to target support through partners, and to understand what’s working. Having similar data nationally, sensitively collected and shared, would enable schools to better meet the emotional needs of their students. In addition to data, they need a curriculum and accountability system that values this and provides the space to do it.

We need comprehensive national data about the wellbeing of young people, an accountability system that values the creation of happy, inclusive school cultures, and a curriculum in which young people see routes to pursue their interests as well as develop skills.


How the school accountability system affects the 11-16 curriculum:

The current school accountability system, including Ofsted, is results-oriented and reductive. This creates a pressurised environment for head teachers and school leaders and incentivises a disproportionate focus on exam results, on which pupils from wealthier backgrounds have significant advantages. Indeed, the gap in GCSE results between disadvantaged pupils and others has grown in the last decade.[22] This further increases the stress and workload of teachers and leaders serving schools with poorer pupil populations or high proportions of pupils with complex needs, as the contexts of such schools are not meaningfully recognised or supported by our current system. These schools already struggle more than others to recruit and are more likely to use long-term supply teaching or have teachers teaching outside of their subject.[23] The stress and workload of the profession is a driving factor of the present teacher recruitment and retention crisis,[24] which poses the biggest risks to schools already facing the greatest challenges.[25]

It is a natural response to this narrow and high-stakes judgement that schools would de-prioritise non-EBacc subjects, skills not measured in the current curriculum, and creating a happy and inclusive school culture. This system provides little incentive for schools to welcome and support all pupils.

We need an accountability system that is supportive rather than punitive, that recognises the different contexts in which schools and colleges operate and that incentivises them to work toward the collective good of all children and young people in a local area. This system also needs to provide sufficient autonomy for schools to use their best judgment to meet the needs of their individual populations.


26 April 2023



[1] https://www.cbi.org.uk/media/1341/helping-the-uk-to-thrive-tess-2017.pdf

[2] https://www.cbi.org.uk/articles/educating-for-the-modern-world-cbipearson-education-and-skills-survey-2018/

[3] https://www.cbi.org.uk/media/3841/12546_tess_2019.pdf

[4] https://www.cbi.org.uk/media/7020/12684_tess_-survey_2021.pdf

[5] https://www.oecd.org/education/school/UPDATED%20Social%20and%20Emotional%20Skills%20-%20Well-being,%20connectedness%20and%20success.pdf%20(website).pdf

[6] https://www.skillsbuilder.org/universal-framework/listening

[7] https://www.skillsbuilder.org/file/essential-skills-tracker-2022

[8] Id.

[9] https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/education-evidence/teaching-learning-toolkit/social-and-emotional-learning

[10] Note 7, Id.

[11] https://www.probonoeconomics.com/counting-on-the-recovery#:~:text=Basic%20numeracy%20skills%20play%20a,to%20experience%20worse%20health%20outcomes

[12] https://www.probonoeconomics.com/news/poor-literacy-skills-cost-workers-18-months-in-lost-earnings

[13] Id.

[14] https://www.impetus.org.uk/policy/youth-jobs-gap

[15] See note 7, Id.

[16] Fair Education Alliance Report Card 2022

[17] https://www.childrenssociety.org.uk/sites/default/files/2022-09/GCR-2022-Full-Report.pdf

[18] https://www.ucl.ac.uk/ioe/news/2020/nov/research-shows-sense-belonging-important-pupils-learning-and-behaviour

[19] https://www.ucl.ac.uk/ioe/news/2020/nov/research-shows-sense-belonging-important-pupils-learning-and-behaviour

[20] https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1134596/State_of_the_nation_2022_-_children_and_young_people_s_wellbeing.pdf

[21] https://gmbeewell.org/

[22] See, eg, note 16, Id

[23] https://www.suttontrust.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/The-Recruitment-Gap.pdf

[24] https://www.educationsupport.org.uk/media/zoga2r13/teacher-wellbeing-index-2022.pdf

[25] https://www.nfer.ac.uk/teacher-labour-market-in-england-annual-report-2023/