The gulf in performance between rich and poor pupils in England and Wales has been widening for at least a decade .
New research based on Government data reveals shows that by 1996 eight out of 10 state-school pupils from professional families were gaining at least five good GCSEs. This compares to just a fifth of those from households with no one in paid employment.
The growing learning gap is revealed by Sheffield Hallam University academics Sean Demack, David Drew and Mike Grimsley who have analysed statistics in the Youth Cohort Study since 1988 and the introduction of the GCSE. The study tracks the education experiences of 22,000 teenagers in England and Wales.
Their research shows that boys, ethnic-minority and deprived children have all fallen behind girls and more affluent pupils.
The proportion of pupils from professional backgrounds gaining at least five good GCSEs rose by 18 percentage points to 77 per cent in the nine years to 1996. For children from unskilled backgrounds, the comparable rise was just 8 points - up to 19 per cent.
According to the Sheffield study, achievement among black and Pakistani pupils stagnated between 1988 and 1996. By contrast, Indian pupils did slightly better overall than white children.
"The groups that were doing relatively well in 1988 have improved at a much swifter rate," said Mr Demack, "The gap has widened."
"The system is giving disproportionate help to those people from advantaged backgrounds. The recent concentration on school performance might be making things worse. Or it maybe there are limits to what school-level intervention can achieve."
This week has seen a plethora of reports on the growing gap between rich and poor. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation pointed to a sharp rise in the number of children living in poverty. In 199596 one in three children was living in households on less than half the average income, compared with one in 10 in 1968.
A second Rowntree report suggested that allowing wealthier families to opt out of local schools could breed a "poverty of aspiration" among children from low-income families.
Co-author Sue Middleton said findings showed children's career hopes were still greatly limited by family income.
"Education reforms in the past 15 years have left many children from poor families in the situation where they don't have the role models to emulate within schools."
A study by the Treasury found that a quarter of the population now lives in poverty - three times as many as 20 years ago.
Chief inspector Chris Woodhead has described the problem of under-performing working-class boys as one of the biggest challenges facing education.
These trends appear to continue in the 1998 Youth Cohort Study, published this week. It discloses further rises in achievement of pupils from managerial or professional families and another decline in the performance of disadvantaged teenagers.
The latest figures have not yet been analysed, but do show that the only group of pupils whose GCSE performance was worsening were those from unskilled manual families.
In 1996, 24 per cent of pupils from those homes gained five-plus good GCSEs. Last year this figure had fallen to one in five.