Attainment gap widens for disadvantaged GCSE pupils, study finds

Persistently disadvantaged pupils are almost two years behind peers by the time they finish GCSEs

Progress in closing the GCSE attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their wealthier classmates has come to a standstill, signalling “a major setback for social mobility”, according to a report.

The study by the Education Policy Institute thinktank found the gap, which has been gradually closing since 2011, widened slightly last year, with the most persistently disadvantaged pupils now almost two years (22.6 months) behind their peers by the time they finish their GCSEs.

After six years of progress, the EPI said the government’s own data showed that the average gap between disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged students by the end of secondary school went up from 17.9 months in 2017 to 18.1 months last year.

Its annual report into the state of education in England acknowledged the changes were relatively modest, but said the shift in direction could mark a turning point which, if not addressed, could lead to the progress of recent years being reversed.

The study, which based its analysis on attainment in GCSE English language and maths, found distinct geographical differences with the disadvantage gap larger – and growing – in parts of the north of England. In Rotherham and Blackpool, poorer pupils lagged behind their peers by more than two years on average by the time they finished their GCSEs. The smallest disadvantage gaps were in London.

The report also looked at attainment by ethnic background and found black Caribbean pupils had slipped a further 2.2 months behind their white British peers since 2011. Pupils with the most severe special educational needs remained the furthest behind and were 40 months behind by the end of secondary school.

David Laws, EPI’s executive chairman, said the report should be “a wake-up call” for the new prime minister, Boris Johnson. “We are now witnessing a major setback for social mobility in our country. Educational inequality on this scale is bad for both social mobility and economic productivity.”

The EPI said the disadvantage gap had also widened marginally in early years, with poorer pupils in reception already 4.5 months behind their peers, up from 4.4 months in 2017. However, primary schools were still narrowing the gap: disadvantaged pupils were 9.2 months behind their wealthier class mates when they left, down from 9.5 months in 2017.

The study, compiled in partnership with the Fair Education Alliance, acknowledged that overall pupil attainment had continued to rise, but pointed to a dramatic slowing down in the closure of the disadvantage gap. It estimated that it would take 560 years to close the gap if the recent five-year trend continued.

Jo Hutchinson, the report’s author, said: “Rising average pupil attainment has not resulted in more equal outcomes for all, and we must be sceptical of rhetoric about social injustices that is not matched by a credible plan and resources.”

Nick Gibb, the school standards minister, said the gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers had narrowed considerably in primary and secondary schools since 2011. “During that time, this government has delivered a range of reforms to ensure every child, regardless of their background, gets a high-quality education. We are investing £2.4bn this year alone through the pupil premium to help the most disadvantaged children.”

Labour and teaching unions blamed the widening attainment gap on cuts to school budgets and local services. Analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that spending per pupil in England’s state schools fell by 8% in real terms between 2009-10 and 2017-18.

Angela Rayner, the shadow education secretary, said: “Successive Tory governments have cut school budgets for the first time in a generation and slashed funding from Sure Start to further education, and now we are seeing the consequences.”

Rosamund McNeil, the assistant general secretary of the National Education Union, called on Johnson’s new cabinet to think again on education, blaming not just cuts but changes to the curriculum and a relentless focus on exam results. “The government must commit to proactively reducing child poverty and commit to ending it,” she said.


Sally Weale Education correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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