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'More than a century' to close GCSE attainment gap

There has been a slowdown in closing the gap between poor pupils and their peers in GCSE English and maths, study shows

Positive outcomes improve but attainment gap remains

There has been a slowdown in closing the gap between poor pupils and their peers in GCSE English and maths, study shows

It will take more than a century to bring poor pupils' GCSE English and maths grades into line with those of their wealthier peers under current trends, research reveals.

In recent years there has been a "significant slowdown" in the rate at which the attainment gap among GCSE pupils has been closing, according to an Education Policy Institute (EPI) report.

Overall, the thinktank found that the gap in school attainment between disadvantaged pupils – those eligible for the pupil premium – and their peers has changed little since 2011.

As of last year, early years pupils classed as disadvantaged were, developmentally, an average of 4.3 months behind their peers, the research finds.

At the end of primary school, this gap stood at 9.4 months in 2017.

For secondary pupils, the EPI says the best way of measuring the attainment gap is by looking at average GCSE English language and maths results.

Progress in closing that gap has slowed in recent years. Disadvantaged pupils were 18 months behind their peers in 2017, compared with 18.1 months in 2016 and 19.1 months in 2011.

Meanwhile, the gap between the most "persistently disadvantaged" pupils and their peers in these subjects is "essentially unchanged"  since 2011.

The report states: "Based on current trends, it would take well over 100 years for the disadvantage gap in English and maths to close."

Threat to social mobility

Across all GCSE subjects, there has been better progress in more recent years. In 2017, the overall attainment gap was 18.4 months on average, compared with 19.3 months in 2016. This decrease, of around a month, is the largest in any single year since 2013.

But the EPI says this has been "caused primarily by more pupils (including disadvantaged pupils) switching to traditional subjects that qualify for the EBacc and are prioritised in the Progress 8 measure – not by better grades".

The additional subjects increasingly entered by disadvantaged and other pupils have historically seen smaller disadvantage gaps than in English and maths, the report states.

Education in England: Annual Report 2018 makes several recommendations for policymakers, including:

  • Equalise access to high-quality early years provision;
  • Ensure a high-quality and stable teaching workforce across the country, including in the most disadvantaged schools;
  • Prioritise pupil wellbeing alongside academic attainment;
  • Ensure early and sustained additional support for those who are behind with attainment;
  • Provide access to a broad curriculum that includes out-of-classroom experiences;
  • Promote a strategy of poverty alleviation, which forms the basis of a programme to improve the attainment of disadvantaged pupils; and
  • Support maternal health and wellbeing throughout childhood.

Commenting on the report, EPI's executive chairman, David Laws, said: “This detailed analysis shows that over the last few years progress in reducing the gap between disadvantaged pupils and other students appears to be stalling.

"In parts of the country, poor pupils are around two years of learning behind the average of other students by the time GCSEs are being taken – this is surely unacceptable.

"Progress is particularly disappointing for the most disadvantaged pupils."

He added: “The only silver lining in this report is that disadvantaged pupils are switching over time to more academic subjects, without there being any negative impact on attainment gaps. This indicates that poorer students are capable of studying what are traditionally regarded as more challenging subjects.

 “Over the last 20 years, successive governments have generally prioritised policies to help close the disadvantaged gap – with some success.

"But there is a serious risk that trends in child poverty and financial pressures on education services upon which poor children depend could impede further progress to make outcomes in English education more equal – if this happens then it will be difficult to make gains in improving social mobility.” 

Minister for children and families Nadhim Zahawi said: “Closing the attainment gap to make sure every child fulfils their potential is a key priority for this government. In fact, the gap has closed by 3.2 per cent in the last year alone – one of the highest reductions we’ve seen since 2011.

“To ensure this continues, we are targeting support at some of the poorest areas of the country with our £72m Opportunity Areas programme, our Social Mobility Action Plan is focusing £800 million of resources on helping disadvantaged children including new programmes to improve early language and literacy skills before they start school." 

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