Selection, streaming and parental choice are preventing disadvantaged children in England from doing as well as those in high-performing countries, academics have found.
Today’s Education Policy Institute report, "Educational disadvantage: how does England compare?", converts the latest Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) results into GCSE grades to examine the performance of disadvantaged children in a number of developed countries, and the gap between them and their peers.
It says that England’s attainment gap in maths is the equivalent to one GCSE grade, putting it 27th out of 44 jurisdictions.
For reading, the disadvantage gap is around three-quarters of a GCSE grade, which is around the average of the other countries in the report.
The authors then consider lessons that England could learn from countries where disadvantaged children both perform well and where there is a small gap between them and their non-disadvantaged peers.
They say: “Most of the systems highlighted for being high on both performance and equity, such as Estonia, Finland, Denmark and Canada, have comprehensive admissions models (with limited or no parental choice) and do not permit early tracking or selection by ability.”
The report concludes: “If policymakers in England want to replicate some of the best practice from leading nations, it needs to focus on creating a responsive funding strategy, eliminating selection and the negative impact of school choice, and incentivising the recruitment and retention of high-quality teachers in the most disadvantaged schools”.
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the NAHT heads' union, said the report supported his union’s opposition to new grammar schools.
Vulnerable pupils 'missing out'
He added: “The report’s warnings on the impact of setting and streaming in comprehensive schools should be heeded by the Department for Education and Ofsted – a high-stakes accountability system and a single focus on educational attainment mean that some of our most vulnerable pupils could be missing out.”
The report also highlights a “growing challenge to recruit and retain high-quality teachers” in England, particularly in areas of higher deprivation.
It says there is “surprisingly little robust research into different models for initial teacher education and deployment, in particular for disadvantaged schools”.
However, it adds that countries that scored highly for performance and equity “generally have strong systems and cultures for teacher development and reward”.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, described teacher shortages as “the greatest barrier” to improving outcomes for disadvantaged children.
“It cannot be a coincidence that maths outcomes for disadvantaged pupils are the most concerning finding in this report, given that teacher shortages are very severe in this subject,” he said.
“Schools are making enormous efforts to close disadvantage gaps and raise standards in general. The government must do more to ensure they have the vital resources of teachers and funding – both of which are in desperately short supply.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said the attainment gap between disadvantaged children and their peers has narrowed at GCSE and key stage 2.
He added: "But there is always more to do – that’s why our Social Mobility Action Plan set out measures to drive improvements in key skills including numeracy, targets areas that need the most support through our £72 million Opportunity Areas programme and builds on the almost £2.5 billion we provide each year to schools to help raise the attainment of disadvantaged pupils.”