The government should reform additional funding for poorer pupils to ensure those “persistently disadvantaged” get more cash, a think tank said after it found such children were almost two years behind their peers by the end of secondary school.
The Education Policy Institute also said all pupils should get a “thorough screening check” for special educational needs and disabilities at the beginning of primary school to close growing attainment gaps (see full list of solutions below).
The think tank’s annual report found that at age 5, disadvantaged pupils were already 4.8 months behind their peers in 2022, up from 4.2 months in 2019 and its highest level since 2014.
By the end of primary school, the gap was 10.3 months, up from 9.3 in 2019 and higher than it was in 2012, reversing a “sustained period of decreasing inequalities between 2011 and 2018”.
At the end of secondary school, poorer pupils were over 18.8 months behind. This gap has also widened by 0.7 months since 2019 and is the highest it has been since 2012.
No progress even pre-pandemic
However, children with a “high persistence of poverty” were even worse-affected. The EPI found these pupils were 12.2 months behind by the end of primary school and 22.7 months behind by the time they finished key stage 4.
These gaps have not widened since 2019, but there was also no progress in reducing them before the pandemic, as there was for other disadvantaged pupils.
Adjusting for changes in the composition of those eligible for free school meals because of transitional arrangements following the introduction of universal credit, the EPI found “some evidence that underlying attainment gaps for persistently disadvantaged pupils have widened since 2019”.
Emily Hunt, from the think tank, said the research showed a “troubling picture of the stark inequalities in the English education system, years after the initial disruption of the pandemic”.
She added “government must take bolder steps to tackle entrenched education inequalities”.
Weigh funding towards poorest pupils
The report called for higher levels of funding for disadvantage, which is “then weighted more heavily towards persistently disadvantaged pupils”.
To target this additional support, the DfE “should ensure persistently disadvantaged pupils can be easily identified by schools”.
Including these identifiers on the National Pupil Database “will additionally support research on the outcomes of these pupils”.
The DfE should “also make available centrally held data linking family income to pupil-level attainment, given that universal credit protections will continue to affect who is considered disadvantaged based on FSM eligibility”.
The EPI research also found reception children with education, health and care plans were already 19.7 months behind in 2022, while those receiving SEN support were 12.4 months behind.
These gaps have “flatlined and widened respectively during the pandemic and, unlike for later phases, they have also widened since the start of the series in 2013”.
Pupils with EHCPs were 28.3 months behind by the end of key stage 2, and those getting SEN support were 18.1 months behind. By the end of key stage 4, these gaps were 40.7 months and 23 months respectively.
‘Screening check’ for SEND needed
The EPI called for “more effective support for the very youngest children with SEND and for all children with the most significant SEND, as there has been no progress in closing the gap for these groups in recent years”.
“There is also a need for improved early identification of SEND in young children. This could take the form of a thorough screening check during reception year.”
The DfE should also publish a strategy to reduce the disadvantage gap, clarifying the government’s “level of ambition regarding educational inequalities”, EPI said. The think tank also called for an “urgent” cross-government child poverty strategy.
Researchers also looked at attainment by ethnicity. They found Gypsy Roma pupils were 31.4 months behind white British pupils by the end of secondary school.
At the same stage, Chinese pupils were 24.1 months ahead of white British pupils.
The DfE should “develop an understanding of why the attainment of some ethnic groups has been more adversely impacted by the pandemic than others, including the roles of poverty and pupil absence which are known to vary by ethnicity”.
Closing the attainment gap: 7 policy solutions
DfE to publish strategy to close disadvantage gap, including review of existing policies
Cross-government child poverty strategy recognising social determinants of education inequality
Boost funding for poorer pupils, including being weighted more heavily towards those persistently disadvantaged
Include identifiers for such pupils on the National Pupil Database and make available data linking family income to pupil-level attainment
Better support youngest children with SEND, including better teacher training, high needs budget review and ensuring access to specialist services
Thorough screen check during reception for improved early identification of SEND
DfE should understand why performance of white and black Caribbean pupils has been more adversely impacted by the pandemic