We’re making slow progress in closing the attainment gap, claims the Education Policy Institute’s Jo Hutchinson, because the picture is far more complex than you’d think

The gap in attainment between disadvantaged pupils and their peers has been entrenched in our education system for generations. These gaps become evident in the early years and grow throughout schooling.

These inequalities transmit into later life: young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to continue into post-compulsory education, they have lower average earnings, poorer health and are more likely to get involved with crime than their more affluent peers. From a societal perspective, allowing a significant number of children to fail to reach their educational and economic potential is a waste of human capital, resulting in lower economic growth and increased costs to the taxpayer.

While the gap has closed slightly, progress is far too slow

The Education Policy Institute has published new analysis examining whether progress has been made in closing the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers. It will make sobering reading for those looking to improve social mobility.

While the gap has closed slightly, progress is far too slow. Last year, disadvantaged pupils were still 19 months behind their peers by the time they took their GCSEs.

In fact, if the trend of the last decade continues, it will take another 50 years before we have an equitable school system where disadvantaged pupils do not fall further behind their peers between the ages of five and 16.

The situation is worse for the most persistently disadvantaged pupils: those who have been eligible for free school meals for at least 80 per cent of their time in school. The attainment gap has actually widened for this group over the past decade, and they are now on average over two full years of learning behind their non-disadvantaged peers by the end of secondary school.

Over the past year, outcomes for economically disadvantaged pupils have often been central to the education debate. Those pushing to expand the number of selective schools have focused their arguments on outcomes for pupils from poorer backgrounds, but others point out that this makes up a very small number of pupils – mainly due to the wide attainment gap between poorer pupils and their peers that is already evident by age 11. The effects on disadvantaged pupils have also featured heavily in EPI’s work on faith schools, on school funding reform, and on childcare.

Our report demonstrates that we are right to be concerned about such pupils and they will remain a key feature of our work. But it also challenges us to consider a wider set of circumstances that may leave pupils vulnerable to low outcomes.

Black Caribbean pupils fall behind during primary and secondary school, and just five per cent of Gypsy/Roma pupils are in the top half of attainment at GCSE. Outcomes for the latter seem to have been particularly resistant to national increases in attainment over time.

But it is not simply a case of identifying other low-performing groups. Pupils whose first language is not English are marginally ahead of their peers by the end of secondary school, but this group is far from homogeneous and we find many EAL pupils who struggle to achieve strong outcomes at GCSE. English proficiency and the length of time spent in the English education system are important considerations – around 42 per cent of EAL pupils at GCSE were not in an English state school at five.

Similarly, while pupils with special educational needs and disabilities tend to have lower attainment outcomes on average, we find examples across the attainment distribution. This variation may reflect the point at which children are first identified as SEND, the different categories of need within the SEND code of practice, and geographical variations in both identification and level of support.

Overall, we demonstrate that no group is adequately summarised by an average or a simple percentage. Further investigation is required to understand the underlying causes of the patterns in outcomes seen and the very different circumstances that pupils may experience.

As the Education Policy Institute enters its second year, we are beginning a new programme of work on vulnerable learners to build our understanding of these very issues.

Jo is director for social mobility and vulnerable learners at the Education Policy Institute and tweets at @JoJoHutchinson