Widening academic gap 'damaging future' for a generation of poorer pupils

The government's Social Mobility Commission also warns expansion of grammar schools would have a "corrosive impact" on social mobility

Jonathan Owen

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A widening gap in academic performance is damaging the prospects of a generation of schoolchildren from impoverished backgrounds, the government’s Social Mobility Commission has warned.

New research released by the commission today reveals that those children on free school meals achieve almost half a GCSE grade less progress in Attainment 8 core subjects than better off pupils.

The problem is mainly within individual schools, with 88 per cent of the gap down to differences between pupils at the same school and just 12 per cent due to variations between schools.

The gap between poor pupils’ attainment at the end of primary school and the end of secondary school has widened, according to the report.

“Since 2012, pupils from low-income families have been making less progress year on year, compared to their more affluent peers,” it states.

Irrespective of how well bright children from low-income families do at primary school, they are likely to be overtaken by their wealthier classmates at secondary school in what is “one of the great injustices of the British education system.”

The report says: “It is time to recognise that the secondary school system still does not work for low income pupils, and that urgent action is needed to break down the barriers that prevent low income pupils from making the same progress as others at secondary school.”

Poor children are more likely to be placed in lower sets, be taught by less qualified teachers and have less expected of them, it finds.

Other factors holding them back include difficult home situations and children from low-income families at greater risk of behavioural issues and exclusion from school.

'Universally high expectations'

Headteachers need to promote a school culture of “universally high expectations” and school staff should prioritise support for pupils with SEND and “improve their understanding of teaching approaches that support low prior attainers and pupils from low-income backgrounds.”

The Department for Education should abandon its plans to bring back grammar schools, as this “would have a corrosive impact on social mobility,” the report says.

The DfE should “avoid further segregation of low income pupils by ending plans to increase the number of secondary schools able to select by ability,” it adds.

Alan Milburn, chair of the Social Mobility Commission, said: “Successive generations of poor kids are being let down by a school system that is supposed to be there to help them move up and get on.” Closing the gap needs to be a top priority for teachers, he added.

Kevin Courtney, NUT general secretary, said: “Government has a responsibility to ensure that schools have sufficient funding to provide the trained teachers, resources, SEND and additional intervention as appropriate, that children need. The current cuts to school funding face overturning all the progress made in recent years.”

A DfE spokesperson said: “The attainment gap between disadvantaged children and their peers is narrowing”.

But they added: “We know there is more to do. That’s why we have set out plans to create more good school places, in more parts of the country, by ending the ban on new grammar schools, where we know bright children from disadvantaged backgrounds thrive, and harnessing the resources and expertise of our universities, independent and faith schools.”

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Jonathan Owen

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