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Unseen children: access and achievement 20 years on: Evidence report

Since taking up the office of Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector at Ofsted in January 2012, I have been focused on what Ofsted can do through inspection to raise educational standards and the quality of teaching. The quality of education and training is, I believe, the most important issue facing Britain today. In the long term, our success as a nation – our prosperity, our security, our society – depends on how well we educate our young people.

Our education system has undoubtedly got much better over the past 20 years and now serves many children well. But a large minority of children still do not succeed at school or college, becoming increasingly less visible as they progress through the system. This unseen body of children and young people that underachieve throughout our education system represents an unacceptable waste of human potential and incurs huge subsequent costs for all of us.

A disproportionate number of these young people are from disadvantaged backgrounds. Right from the early years, there is a strong association between low family income and poor educational outcomes. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) highlights this as a particular weakness of the English educational system. It is often called our ‘long tail of underperformance’. We simply cannot have a world-class education system until we solve this problem.

The link between disadvantage and academic failure is far from being an iron law. Deprivation does not determine destiny. Many young people from low income families succeed brilliantly. There are also schools and colleges that overcome the barriers for pupils from low-income families, sending children from the toughest neighbourhoods to the top universities or into highly valued apprenticeships. They do this because they have the highest expectations for each of them and are relentless in what they do to secure excellent headway in realising these expectations.