Inequalities between children in the United Kingdom

There are several inequalities between children including those based around social class and income, gender and ethnicity.

Last Updated on October 12, 2023 by Karl Thompson

The March of Progress view of childhood argues that childhood has gradually improved over the last century or so.

However, conflict theorists argue that this view is too rose tinted. It ignores the fact that there are significant inequalities between children. Social policies designed to benefit children have not helped all children equally. 

We can point to at least the following significant inequalities between children…

  • income based inequalities
  • gender based inequalities
  • Inequalities related to ethnicity
  • Inequalities in child protection services.

The effects of income inequalities on child development 

Nearly 80% of children from the richest fifth of households are read to daily at age 3, compared to only 40% of children from the poorest fifth of households (2).

bar chart showing how many hours parents read to children.

According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies (1) these inequalities which start at home persist through education:

  • Only 57% of English pupils eligible for free school meals reached a good level of development at the end of Reception in 2019, compared with 74% of their better-off peers. 
  • Only 40% of disadvantaged pupils go on to earn good GCSEs in English and maths compared to 60% of the better-off students.
  • Ten years after GCSEs, just over 50% of the richest fifth of students have graduated from university compared to fewer than 20% of the poorest fifth of students

Gender inequalities in childhood 

Girls suffer more problems in childhood than boys

In the year ending March 2019, the CSEW  (3) estimated that women were around three times as likely as men to have experienced sexual abuse before the age of 16 years (11.5% compared with 3.5%).

Some more historical evidence shows that girls have to negotiate the psychological pressures of ‘objectification’ much more than boys:

  • A 2016 survey found that 29% of girls reported having experienced unwanted sexual touching in school. 
  • The same report found that 70% of girls and boys reported hearing on a regular basis  words such as ‘slag’ or ‘slut’ to shame girls 
  • A 2007 survey of Brownies aged 7-10 were asked to describe ‘planet sad’ – they spoke of it being inhabited by girls who were fat.
  • A 2009 survey found that a quarter of girls thought it was more important to be beautiful than clever. –
  • 16% of 15 -17 year old girls have avoided going to school because they were worried about their appearance
  • One further consequence of objectification is that girls face sexual abuse from boys. (nspcc)

Ethnic inequalities in childhood 

Exclusion rates are higher for White Gypsy and Roma pupils (0.39%), Traveller of Irish Heritage pupils (0.27%), Black Caribbean pupils (0.25%) and Mixed White and Black Caribbean children (0.24%) (4). 

Exclusions for racial incidents in schools were up 40% in 2020. 

Based on a recent poll of 400 BAME teachers, 54% said they had experienced actions they believed were demeaning to them because of their ethnicity. (4)

Child Protection services fail to protect many children from harm

The most horrific example of this is from the town of Rotherham where gangs of Asian men groomed, abused and trafficked 1400 children while police were contemptuous of the victims and the council ignored what was going on, in spite of years of warnings and reports about what was happening.

A recent report commissioned by the council, covering 1997 to 2013, detailed cases where children as young as 11 had been raped by a number of different men, abducted, beaten and trafficked to other towns and cities in the north of England to continue the abuse.

It said that three reports from 2002 to 2006 highlighted the extent of child exploitation and links to wider criminality but nothing was done, with the findings either suppressed or simply ignored. Police failed to act on the crimes and treated the victims with contempt and deemed that they were “undesirables” not worthy of protection.


This post has been written primarily for A-level Sociology students, studying the Families and Households module. Many of the examples above are related to the topic of Toxic Childhood.

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  1. IFS (2022) Lack of progress on closing educational inequalities disadvantaging millions throughout life.
  2. Nuffield Foundation (2022) Little Change to Early Childhood Inequalities
  3. CSEW 2022  Child Sexual Abuse in England and Wales. 
  4. Barnardos: How systemic racism affects young people

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