The attainment gap between poorer pupils and their better-off peers has stopped closing for the first time in 10 years, new research from the Education Policy Institute has found.
The research, based on Department for Education data, found that disadvantaged pupils are now 18.1 months behind their more advantaged peers in terms of learning time by the time they finish their GCSEs, which is the same gap as was seen five years ago.
It comes amid growing concerns about the education missed by pupils during partial school closures this year. However, the EPI’s research also found that the disadvantage gap had stopped closing before the pandemic started, raising questions about the government’s promise to “level up” education.
At primary level, the gap has actually increased for the first time in 13 years.
Researchers believe increasing poverty levels are a contributory cause to the problems they identified.
The study found that children with a high persistence of poverty – identified as those receiving free school meals for more than 80 per cent of their time at school – have a learning gap of twice that of pupils with a low persistence of poverty.
David Laws, a former schools minister who now serves as executive chair of the EPI, said it was “deeply concerning that our country entered the pandemic with such a lack of progress in this key area of social policy”, and said the government “urgently needs to put in place new policy measures to help poor children to start to close the gap again”.
The Fair Education Alliance, which partnered with the EPI on the report, also issued a warning.
“This sobering research unveils that the gap between disadvantaged pupils and their wealthier peers has stalled and could be beginning to widen,” said FEA joint chief executives Sam Butters and Gina Cicerone.
“The message is clear: without systemic change, this gap will never close. Before Covid-19, persistently disadvantaged children were already 22 months behind their more advantaged peers, and it is widely expected this will increase as a result of school closures.”
And Loic Menzies, chief executive of the Centre for Education and Youth, said the report showed that “despite a decade of radical education reform, equity in education remains an elusive dream”.
“Now is the time to recognise that school policies alone cannot create the fair opportunities every child deserves. Instead the government now needs to commit to leveling up the full range of services that children and their families depend on.”