We know there’s work to do with the disadvantage gap in this country – but where do we stand on the international scale, asks Natalie Perera?

The gap in attainment between disadvantaged pupils and their peers is the leading measure used by policymakers to gauge the state of educational inequality in England. Organisations such as my own scrutinise it relentlessly, assessing the size of the gap, the latest trends, and by extension the progress we are making towards an equitable education system.

Just one in 10 disadvantaged pupils in England achieve top grades in GCSE maths

While the gap has narrowed slightly over the last 10 years, recent progress has been slow and we are still decades away from reaching a system in which a child’s background has no bearing on their outcomes at school.

The EPI’s latest report, published in partnership with Professors John Jerrim and Toby Greany at the IoE, looks at how well England is serving its disadvantaged pupils, compared to other developed nations.

It is well documented that England trails behind many other developed countries when it comes to maths performance of all pupils in the triannual PISA tests, yet our research finds this disappointing situation also extends to the disadvantage gap in maths. At GCSE level the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers in England is equivalent to one whole grade – positioning us firmly in the bottom half of developed nations, in 27th place out of 44.

In reading, the findings are slightly more positive – although the gap still stands at three quarters of a grade. England, again, lingers in a mid-table position. Interestingly, all other UK home nations fare much better – with only Macao ranking ahead of Wales on the gap in reading out of all developed nations. This could, however, be a feature of poor overall performance in Wales.

Alongside the disadvantage gap, our report also looks at the overall performance of disadvantaged pupils in England, and how they compare with leading nations’ disadvantaged pupils.

Painting a picture that is equally as worrying for social mobility, our findings show that just one in 10 disadvantaged pupils in England achieve top grades in GCSE maths – nearly half as many as the number of disadvantaged pupils in Singapore.

On these measures of educational disadvantage, we are at best, very average.

Yet there does not need to be a trade-off between high performance and high equity.

There are several developed nations that are able to achieve both. So, what are the likes of Canada, Denmark, Estonia, Hong Kong and Macao doing right?

Firstly, they avoid the selection and segregation of pupils. In highly segregated systems, disadvantaged pupils are more likely to be found in less popular schools – with schools serving few disadvantaged students less able to counter the effects of that disadvantage.

Accordingly, any further structural changes to the English school system which advance social selection or segregation, are likely to be counter-productive to social mobility.

Countries that perform well on both the gap and overall performance of disadvantaged pupils are also marked by funding systems that cater to such pupils’ needs. England actually fares quite well on this measure – aided by the pupil premium, and a new funding formula that is underpinned broadly by progressive principles.

Lastly, countries with high equity and high performance tend to have a sizable focus on attracting and retaining high-quality teachers. Here, we know that England has a challenge ahead – PISA data has shown that 45 per cent of heads reported teacher shortages were the greatest hindrance to improving outcomes, compared to the OECD average of 30 per cent.

The situation in disadvantaged schools is likely to be even more challenging – with recruitment difficulties often more acute in these schools, coupled with higher levels of turnover. While we know that we cannot simply transplant aspects of successful education nations into less successful ones, we should set not accept anything less than both high performance and high equity as our overall aim for education in England.

Natalie Perera is Executive director, the Education Policy Institute