The government stands accused of presiding over a “decade of failure” to close the disadvantage gap and improve outcomes for poorer GCSE students.
A report by the Education Policy Institute, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, found that despite a decade of policy interventions, the lack of progress in narrowing the gap would “severely constrain” the government’s “levelling-up” ambitions.
Here are the main findings.
1. Progress on disadvantage gap ‘stalling’
The gap in GCSE results between students eligible for free school meals at some point over the last six year and their better-off peers was an average of 1.24 grades in 2020.
This compares to a disadvantage gap of 1.26 grades in 2019. But EPI said the gap had changed “little” since 2017, “marking a stalling of progress in reducing educational inequalities”.
2. But it’s worse for the poorest
This gap is even wider for students who are in long-term poverty – those who spend at least 80 per cent of their school lives on free school meals.
They trail behind their better off peers by 1.6 grades on average at GCSE.
This gap has not improved since 2011, despite government interventions, the EPI said.
To make matters worse, there are now more students who fall into this category – 39 per cent of all disadvantaged students were in long-term poverty in 2020, up from 35 per cent in 2017.
3. Huge regional variation
The five local authorities with the largest disadvantage gaps in 2020 were Knowsley (1.76 grades), Blackpool (1.69), Salford (1.66), Derby (1.65) and Sheffield (1.61).
The smallest GCSE grade gaps were in Kensington and Chelsea (0.10), Westminster (0.29), Newham (0.33), Tower Hamlets (0.34) and Barnet (0.36). Of the 30 areas with the smallest gaps in England, almost all of them are in London.
4. Poverty plays key role
Areas with the largest disadvantage gaps are more likely to have a large proportion of students in long-term poverty, EPI said.
So poverty plays a “decisive role” in these gaps, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that pupils are having poor schooling.
Several areas have over half of their disadvantaged students in this long-term poverty group, including Kirklees (58 per cent), Sunderland (54 per cent), Halton (53 per cent), Tower Hamlets (53 per cent), Middlesbrough (53 per cent), Knowsley (52 per cent), Kingston-Upon-Hull (52 per cent), and Hartlepool (51 per cent).
5. Centre-assessed grades didn’t widen the gap
The EPI said the “relative stability” in the measured disadvantaged gap in 2020 during a “period of major educational turmoil is in itself remarkable”.
This suggests fears around widespread bias in teacher assessments against disadvantaged pupils “were unfounded”, the report found.
This was similar to Ofqual analysis that year which also found no evidence that poorer pupils were systematically disadvantaged.
EPI researchers found “some progress” in closing the gap in 2020 for many minority ethnic groups, including Black Caribbean and other Black students.
But the gap between SEND students with severe needs and non-SEND students rose from 3.4 grades in 2019 to 3.6 grades in 2020.
6. Suggestions to improve
The EPI urged government to target catch-up interventions at groups most affected by learning loss during the pandemic.
They said grade increases of 2020 should not distract from the “urgent task” of tackling “deep-rooted education inequalities”.
To do this, the new levelling-up strategy must tackle “social determinants” such as poverty.
“There is little evidence in current government policy of plans to confront these underlying causes.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said the new education investment areas, announced last week, will “target support where education outcomes have been weakest”.