The educational disadvantage gap has stopped closing for secondary school pupils, new research shows – with one former minister describing the figures as a “wake-up call” for Boris Johnson to tackle inequality.
The report, published today by the Education Policy Institute (EPI) thinktank, says that for the first time since 2011, the gap between disadvantaged secondary school pupils’ attainment and their peers’ widened slightly by 0.2 months to 18 months. The research suggests that government austerity may be a factor.
Social mobility: Gap between rich and poor pupils ‘stagnating’
By the time they finish their GCSEs, poorer pupils are, on average, a year and a half behind their wealthier peers.
And for the most persistently disadvantaged secondary pupils – those who have been eligible for free school meals for at least 80 per cent of their time at school – the attainment gap with their peers widened by 0.3 months in 2017-2018, and by 0.4 months in total since 2011.
Threat to social mobility
This means that persistently disadvantaged secondary pupils are almost two years – 22.6 months – behind other pupils by the time they finish their GCSEs.
David Laws, EPI executive chairman and a former Liberal Democrat schools minister, said the figures were a "major setback".
"This report should be a wake-up call for our new prime minister," he said. "We need a renewed policy drive to narrow the disadvantage gap, and this needs to be based on evidence of what makes an impact, rather than on political ideology or guesswork."
EPI suggests that the wider disadvantage gap at key stage 4 could represent a “turning point”, reversing the progress of previous years when the gap was narrowing slowly.
Based on a five-year rolling average, EPI calculated that it would now take over 560 years to close the gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers.
The report says that the largest disadvantage gaps at age 16 – equivalent to two years of learning – were most concentrated in the North of England.
And black Caribbean pupils have fallen further behind white British pupils, as the attainment gap between them has widened by 2.2 months since 2011.
Secondary pupils with special educational needs and disability remain the furthest behind. Pupils with SEND and an EHCP (education, health and care plan) are 40 months behind their peers at age 16. Even pupils with SEND who are not statemented and do not have an EHCP are over two years behind their peers when they finish GCSEs.
However, the disadvantage gap continued to narrow at primary level. Between 2017 and 2018 the gap narrowed by 0.3 months, and the gap narrowed by 0.4 months for persistently disadvantaged pupils in 2018.
The report suggests that secondary pupils are “more exposed to austerity measures than primary pupils”, which could explain the wider disadvantage gap at age 16. Younger children were less likely to be left unsupervised or engage in risky behaviours, while the higher pupil premium funding for primary schools could contribute to narrowing the gap, the report says.
Secondary schools were more likely to be in financial deficit than primary schools, which, combined with pressure on local authority children’s services, might be having “a dual impact on support for disadvantaged pupils in secondary schools.”
The report also identifies increased segregation between disadvantaged students and their peers at post-16, with disadvantaged pupils underrepresented in school sixth forms, sixth-form colleges and apprenticeships.
Mr Laws said: "We are now witnessing a major setback for social mobility in our country.
“Recent progress on narrowing the education gap between poor children and the rest has ground to a halt. Indeed, the very poorest children are actually further behind now than they were a decade ago – they are almost two years of learning on average behind other children by the time they take their GCSEs.
"Educational inequality on this scale is bad for both social mobility and economic productivity."
But the government said the gap had "narrowed considerably" in recent years.
School standards minister Nick Gibb said: "We are investing £2.4 billion this year alone through the pupil premium to help the most disadvantaged children.
"Teachers and school leaders are helping to drive up standards right across the country, with 85 per cent of children now in 'good' or 'outstanding' schools compared to just 66 per cent in 2010, but there is more to do to continue to attract and retain talented individuals in our classrooms."