The progress gap can’t be closed. So what now?

26 May 2021, 5:00

The data is clear: The progress gap won’t close in our current system and using our current tools. But there are reforms that could help us build a better picture and a better system, writes Sammy Wright

When I joined the Social Mobility Commission in 2018, I had a kid-in-a-sweet-shop kind of moment. I was (and still am) vice principal of a large 11-18 school in Sunderland, so my day job involves a lot of pounding the corridors and glaring. The thought of a parallel life of research and policy, enriched by vast reams of national attainment data, was mouth-watering.

So I started with some basic questions. Like, ‘Are schools with affluent catchments more likely to be rewarded by Ofsted?’


I moved on to ‘How many secondaries in the north east are both over 20 per cent FSM and outstanding?’


(In London there were 60. 6 per cent compared to 30 per cent.)

And then, ‘How many schools actually close the progress gap?’

This one took more time. We commissioned some research and, after some pandemic-related delays, it’s now published. The answer?


Only 11 schools have a consistent trend of a positive progress 8 gap over three years. Of those 11, six are grammar schools with vanishingly small pupil premium numbers, three are former grammar or independent schools, and one was investigated in 2017 for high levels of off-rolling.

So we delved deeper and looked at what strategies have made some difference, even if they haven’t closed the gap. Then we analysed those to come up with recommendations for the government and school leaders.

A key finding is that the picture is extremely volatile. Nationally, there has been a clear widening of the gap every year since 2016, but there’s little evidence of a universally applicable approach to tackling this. Nevertheless, one essential function of the project was to provide practical help to schools, so we created a taxonomy of different kinds of school with a diagnostic tool and a prescription tailored to each specific context.

But we need to be honest. If only 11 schools are closing the gap, and none of them are doing it in circumstances like those the vast majority of teachers and school leaders across the country face, then the gap can’t be closed.

Stark, but there are two possible responses.

Education is not a sufficient lever to tackle inequality

The idealistic response is to say we need to tear up the qualifications system and start again, designing a more level playing field. Lots of brilliant educationalists are thinking about this at the moment, and I hope something great comes out of the debate. The challenge here is ensuring that in levelling the playing field we are, to borrow a phrase, levelling up.

The realistic response is to recognise that education is not a sufficient lever to tackle inequality. That instead of obsessing about the data, we just need to do the best for each child in our care. And while part of me rebels at this, and demands the same expectations for all, another part recognises the sad truth that some damage can’t be undone.

The thing is, though: Where we are right now is uniquely destructive, and uniquely nonsensical.

It is a fact that disadvantage, in the simplistic sense captured by FSM, makes it harder to achieve in our current suite of qualifications. It is a fact that the gap is the same in outstanding schools as in inadequate ones. And yet we judge schools with 4 per cent FSM in exactly the same way as those with 60.

Which brings us to two further responses, both essential.

Pragmatically, we must stop penalising schools for having disadvantaged cohorts. To do that, we must recognise disadvantage and its nuances properly in our accountability measures. FSM needs to be reformed from a blunt instrument into one that picks up persistent and temporary disadvantage, and distinguishes between those who are just about managing and those below the poverty line.

And idealistically, we have to stop paying lip service to an ideal of fairness that is palpably untrue. Until we do, it’s the idea of building an education system that works for everyone that will remain a pipe dream.

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