Written evidence submitted by NESTA




  1. Nesta is a global innovation foundation that backs new ideas to tackle the big challenges of our time. We are a UK charity that works all over the world, supported by a financial endowment.  Nesta aims to foster a broader, fairer and smarter education system in the UK, and help all learners to develop the skills, knowledge and attitudes needed to thrive in the future world of work.


  1. We tackle challenges through our unique combination of expertise, skills and funding. Our approach is practical and collaborative, driven by a rigorous use of evidence and data, emerging technology and the power of people.


Key points


  1. Our main conclusions are the need for more open and regularly updated data to improve the evidence base around disadvantaged groups. The COVID-19 pandemic will exacerbate existing problems in the education system around inequality, but there are steps that can be taken now to help mitigate this through well targeted and well supported interventions.




  1. The Committee should recommend that the Department for Education (DfE) review Progress 8 measures and ensure they accurately capture how schools with high numbers of disadvantaged and SEN students are performing.


  1. DfE, through the Office for National Statistics (ONS), should publish National Pupil Database (NPD) data on inequality of educational outcomes for children based on ethnicity..


  1. Rather than seeing early years provision in isolation, the Committee should build upon its conception of early years in this inquiry to include both provision of services and the role of parents, carers and family members.


  1. Furthermore, the Committee should ask government to better support promising interventions to improve outcomes in the early years[1].


  1. The Committee should call for additional policies and interventions that address problems specific to regions with a disproportionate number of white working class children.


  1. To ensure that inequalities increase by as little as possible for white working class children and others as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Committee should support efforts to help specific groups catch up on lost learning during school closures. This should include additional use of technology and wraparound support to allow students to catch up on learning they have missed during the crisis.


Questions asked by the Committee


        The extent of underachievement for white pupils who are eligible for FSM (free school meals), and how well the DfE’s statistics (including Progress 8 measures) capture that


  1. Understanding underachievement, its causes and how different groups are affected is complicated. A mixed methods approach consisting of numerous data sources offers the best opportunity of doing so.  The statistics released by DfE are useful and do help illustrate the extent of underachievement for disadvantaged pupils. However, they are not as extensive or frequently published as they could be given the information at the department’s disposal through the National Pupil Database (NPD) in relation to underachievement and a range of demographic characteristics including ethnicity. 


  1. Progress 8 is an improvement on previous threshold measures and can help us understand problems specific to different social groups.For example last year’s Progress 8 scores put in sharp focus the problems faced by white working class children who were one of the only groups not to have been found to improve year on year[2].


  1. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the limitations of Progress 8 in its present form. With no KS2 tests this year, it is unclear how Progress 8 will be calculated in 2025 for the year group that has missed out[3]. This could be seen as an opportunity to reform Progress 8 to ensure that schools with a disproportionate number of disadvantaged and/or SEN pupils are not given unduly poor scores; a problem that has been raised repeatedly in the past.


  1. The balance of evidence suggests that the current Progress 8 measures can lead to schools being punished or rewarded through little action of their own. A study by Leckie and Goldstein in 2018 found that by fully taking into account the region a school is in and the number of disadvantaged pupils it has, a school’s Progress 8 score can improve dramatically[4].


  1. The Committee should therefore take advantage of this unique set of circumstances and call for a review of Progress 8 measures with the aim of better capturing how well schools with more disadvantaged students are performing.


        The variation within the cohort of white pupils who are eligible for FSM (including regional variation, and variation between the five specific ethnic groups that sit under the broad ‘White’ category), and how well the DfE’s statistics capture that


  1. There is variance between the different categories of white pupils and the statistics we have available do not always show a complete picture of this.  An example from the information we do have would be the consistent underperformance of Gypsy/Roma and traveller of Irish heritage groups, who have the lowest performance of any group at KS4[5].



  1. One way we could better understand these differences and their causes would be by making better use of the National Pupil Database, which at the moment is not made readily available to the public, research organisations or local authorities[6]. While some information clearly cannot be released, the scarcity and irregularity of data exploring educational inequality is damaging as it does not allow decisions to be made with the best information at hand.When information is available, it is published irregularly, often under the auspices of third party organisations, such as the annual Roehampton Report on computing education[7]. These sorts of statistics would be better utilised if published by DfE on a regular basis. As a result, the Committee should call for an increase in both the scale and regularity of DfE data releases, with an emphasis being on publication of data already held by the department through the National Pupil Database.


The principal factors that contribute to this underachievement, with reference to:

        The availability and quality of early years provision


  1. By age 5, white children in receipt of Free School Meals have among the biggest attainment gaps of any group[8]. A wealth of research has shown the importance of a child’s early years in improving life chances and educational outcomes[9].


  1. The quality of early years provision and parenting are crucial factors in these outcomes. There is a significant body of research which has shown the critical role that parents play in early child development[10]. Parents have unique assets and experience that, when combined with great quality professional support, can lead to better support and outcomes for families in the early years. We consequently hope the Committee recognises the the link between parental and provision-led factors and calls for more government action in supporting promising interventions at this stage, such as those identified through Nesta’s Early Years Social Action Fund[11].


        The role of place (reflecting regional variations)


  1. Geography is an important factor in disadvantage and underachievement in education and yet not enough attention is paid to regional variation by policymakers in practice, in spite of excellent data from organisations such as the EPI[12].


  1. Poorer pupils in general are on average a year and a half behind their wealthier peers in attainment by the time they leave school. This varies from a gap of 6 months to 2 years depending on region, with areas containing a greater number of white working class students often ranking near the bottom[13].


  1. At present, inconsistency around interventions to improve educational equality can result in projects creating artificial boundaries between regions suffering from similar problems. For example, the government’s Opportunity Areas programme designed to improve equality in education and wider social outcomes has had some degree of early stage success[14]. However, putting so many resources into one area and picking an arbitrary number of places to try and help is not a long-term or sustainable model for the whole country.


  1. Consequently, while calling for more regional interventions, the Committee should emphasise that these need to be predicated on replicable and financially sustainable models that can be tailored to similar, but different, contexts; not quick-fixes or schemes that require an outlay that is not replicable outside of a few chosen areas.


        The impact of role models


  1. Exposure to role models can be an effective way to widen participation and this is part of the reason that Nesta has previously produced work championing the role of women in AI [15].


  1. While in recent years this has predominantly been in relation to gender and specific subjects or disciplines, there is evidence that a similar approach has traction in relation to white working class children and perceptions of education and has some evidence of success[16].The Behavioural Insights Team for example has found that showing white working class children a testimonial video of someone from that background who has undertaken higher education raised positive perceptions of attending a higher education institution by 10% vs. a control group[17]. However, more research needs to be done to replicate these sorts of findings and tailor role model approaches so that they appeal specifically to young people from this background.


        The effects of COVID-19 on this group


  1. The COVID-19 pandemic is likely to exacerbate educational inequalities for white working class pupils and other disadvantaged groups. Research commissioned by Nesta has shown that a widening of the attainment gap for disadvantaged children is the biggest perceived challenge to come about as a result of school closures, with 61% of teachers saying so[18]; findings supported by the EEF who estimate that the current crisis will wipe out ten years worth of progress towards closing the disadvantage gap[19].


  1. Out of school tuition has been shown to be highly effective in closing the attainment gap in the past, with an EEF study from 2018 showing that just 12 hours of additional tutoring from university graduates can result in a reduction of 3 months[20]. Nesta has also financially supported organisations such as Third Space Learning, who offer targeted tuition in maths to underachieving pupils[21]. There is now a pressing need for tuition of this kind to be rapidly scaled, with an emphasis on reaching disadvantaged groups. Education Select Committee Chair Robert Halfon’s call to recruit graduates and former teachers to provide this additional capacity is an approach that ought to be investigated by the Committee more fully[22].


  1. In addition, Nesta are working with EEF, Sutton Trust, Impetus and the DfE to support an online tuition pilot. We would be happy to share our learning from the pilot we are putting together for this work with the Committee.


  1. Putting this sort of tuition in place as quickly as possible is vital. Data shows that the school holidays and time away from school exacerbate the achievement gap as disadvantaged students have less access to cultural, developmental and educational activities, increased food insecurity and isolation. Existing research suggests that “the prolonged summer break has an accumulative effect in educational outcomes and may be one of the most fundamental, yet least acknowledged, contributors towards the attainment gap between richest and poorest children, accounting for almost two-thirds of the gap by the time children reach the age of 14”[23]. Several months of school closures, followed almost immediately by two months of Summer holidays will compound these issues if left unchecked. 


  1. During and after this pandemic it is critical that provision for pastoral and mental health support is prioritised, especially for disadvantaged young people who have suffered neglect, anxiety or bereavement. This targeted support should be complemented by universal provision for the development of social and emotional skills like resilience. CASEL has identified social and emotional learning as essential to re-engaging vulnerable students when schools reopen[24], and wider research has linked these skills to longer-term life outcomes and success in school. [25] Nesta is currently supporting early-stage, high-potential organisations that develop social and emotional skills in secondary-age young people through our Future Ready Fund.


Priorities for the Government in terms of tackling this issue, with reference to:

        The value of locally-tailored solutions, including youth groups and community organisations

  1. The regional nature of disadvantage as it relates to white working class pupils makes locally-tailored solutions a key tool in the government’s range of policy responses and one which at present is not utilised to its highest potential.The government’s stated agenda of ‘levelling up’ the regions is welcome and suggests a change of approach in this area born of a growing realisation of the unique and various challenges faced outside of urban locations in particular.


  1. However, realisation of the challenges alone is only the first hurdle and instead of simply doing more of the same, the government should instead see this as an opportunity to deliver more nuanced and locality led efforts to reduce inequalities in education, which would necessarily involve community organisations.


  1. Broadly speaking, the government should look to make regional policy in this area more adaptive to respond to locale-specific issues and comprehensive, so that the present situation where very similar areas, both geographically and demographically, do not get similar access to government help in tackling disadvantage comes to an end.


        The school system


  1. The school system at present is not designed in a way that is likely to engage all students, including many from white working class backgrounds. The current, relatively narrow, focus leading to exams is not likely to engender a love of learning to those who struggle with these exams and can make school seem irrelevant to future life chances, a point identified by the government in prior research, but not acted upon to any great extent[26].


  1. Better using technology to meet the needs of a more diverse range of students is one tangible approach to improving the education system. We call on the Committee to support Nesta’s work with DfE to deliver an EdTech testbed to support schools and colleges to make more effective use of technology in the classroom and build the evidence base around what interventions work[27].


July 2020

























[23] Stewart et al (2018) The cost of school holidays for children from low-income families