This week’s A level results show that we still have a long way to go to close education inequalities across the country.
There is a long-standing attainment gap between disadvantaged students and their more advantaged peers, but this gap has widened due to the unequal impact of the pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis.
Yesterday’s results reveal a stark contrast in grades between different regions. This builds on a trend over the past decade, which has seen a widening gap – in particular between London, which has had the top grades in the country for at least the past decade, and poorer regions such as the north east where I’m from, which alas is frequently at the bottom of rankings.
This reflects patterns of poverty in those areas, differences in demographics, as well as in the quality of schools. This year’s data shows that wealthier areas in the south have done better since 2019, whereas less well-off areas of the north have progressed more slowly, and in some cases fallen behind their pre-pandemic levels.
So why have these attainment gaps widened over the past few years? The COVID Social Mobility and Opportunities Study (COSMO) has been following the experiences of this year’s A level candidates since the height of the pandemic. Our research found big differences in remote learning for this group during lockdown, especially between state and private schools.
And barriers to remote learning were more likely to be experienced by young people from lower socio-economic backgrounds. These included a lack of access to a suitable device for learning or sharing a device, lack of a quiet space in the home or lack of support from teachers or parents – and in some cases all of the above.
Last year, while they were still in year 12, many young people in this group felt they had fallen behind due to the pandemic, with almost half (46 per cent) of students at comprehensive schools saying they had not been able to catch up with learning, a significantly higher proportion than those at independent schools (27 per cent).
When the same group were surveyed this year, we found that one-third (33 per cent) still felt the pandemic was having a negative effect on their education or training.
So we know that disadvantaged pupils have fallen behind due to the disruption of the pandemic, and they have also borne the brunt of the cost-of-living crisis, both of which have impacted their learning.
Furthermore, they also have higher levels of persistent absence. Those from disadvantaged backgrounds are twice as likely to be absent from school than their better-off peers. These absences are further widening the attainment gap and damaging the life chances of kids from poorer families. All of these factors can be seen in the growing regional disparities in today’s data.
But what can we do to reverse these trends and begin to close the attainment gap? These results re-emphasise the scale of the issue we are facing. We urgently need a national strategy to close the attainment gap in schools if we are to avoid a lost generation of social mobility.
The government could start by ensuring that pupil premium funding is extended to those in post-16 education. Disadvantage doesn’t stop at age 16, and neither should the associated funding.
And given we know tutoring is one of the most powerful interventions to narrow the attainment gap, the National Tutoring Fund should be put on a longer-term footing and focused on those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Those in post-16 education also require greater access to tutoring support.
Ultimately, any strategy needs to be backed with significant funding, after education recovery commissioner Sir Kevan Collins’ plan in 2021 was not.
We’ve a long road ahead, but these policies could help to set a course for a more equal future for the class of 2024 and beyond.