Building a sustainable future: fair access to education

The United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are 17 ambitious socio-economic goals which countries around the world have pledged to meet by 2030. An underlying principle is that "no-one should be left behind". Access to quality education (SDG 4) is recognised as an important way to help people out of poverty and to improve individuals' opportunities.

However, even before the outbreak of the global pandemic earlier this year, there was still a long way to go globally. The United Nations has noted that while there has been significant progress over the last decade, nearly 260 million children were still out of school in 2018. By April 2020 - following the outbreak of Covid-19 - the UN has estimated that this figure had risen to close to 1.6 billion.

While SDG 4 has a focus on primary and secondary education, there is ongoing and renewed reflection in the UK about fair access to higher education. Following the publication of initial admissions data by UCAS recently for academic year 2020/21, the Office for Students (OfS) noted that more young people from disadvantaged backgrounds will be going into higher education this year. This is good news, although the OfS also noted that there are still challenges for higher education, however, and that ambitious longer term goals have been included in institutions' Access and Participation Plans.

One of the effective practices highlighted by the OfS in this area is that of "contextual admissions". This is where additional information, as well as examination performance, is taken into account by those responsible for admissions, such as where an applicant lives or which school they attended. As the OfS Director of Fair Access and Participation has put it:

"A level grades can only be considered to be a robust measure of potential if they are considered alongside the context in which they are achieved."

Sector-wide and institutional data is also analysed by the OfS which looks at the gaps in admissions, participation and progression for those from different backgrounds and with different characteristics. This data will become increasingly important in the years to come to help understand - and seek to address - inequalities and disparities across the UK. An increased effort is likely to be required from many quarters to respond to the additional challenges in this important area which have been created by the global pandemic.

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