At the Education Policy Institute, we are perhaps best known for our annual reporting on disadvantage gaps. Designed to provide a way of comparing the size of the attainment gap for socio-economically disadvantaged pupils over time, the ‘months of learning’ gap was fine-tuned to give the most consistent picture before, during and after major reforms to the national curriculum, assessments and school performance measures introduced by the government from 2014 to 2017.
A very different kind of disruption was unleashed when schools were required to switch to hybrid remote learning and exams were cancelled for two years because of the Covid pandemic. Schools were asked to ensure that centre-assessed GCSE grades were fair to different groups, resulting in largely similar attainment gaps in 2019 and 2020.
However, two groups were the exception to this and saw their attainment gaps widen in 2020: pupils with special needs (SEND) and those who speak English as an additional language (EAL).
The increased disadvantage of these groups motivated us to delve deeper into the 2020 GCSE results with a focus on additional needs, and on the intersections between needs and ethnicity, since the pandemic had resulted in racial disparities in health outcomes. We developed new models to capture the relationships between ethnicity, additional needs and GCSE attainment. Last week, we published the final blog in our series from this analysis.
Encouragingly, we found that where pupils with special needs had these identified in the SEND register and attended schools with additional provision such as a SEN unit, the impact on their attainment was mitigated in many cases. For example, for pupils recorded as receiving school support for six or more years, those who attended a school with a SEN unit saw their GCSE gaps reduced by 6 percentiles for white British pupils, 10 percentiles for black Caribbean pupils and 22 percentiles for Gypsy Roma pupils.
Additional provision also played a protective role in schools with a resourced provision or a high quota of teaching assistants, and for pupils with EHCPs as well as those with long-term school support. There were inconsistencies between ethnic groups, however. Black African pupils benefited less than black Caribbean pupils, and Indian pupils did not benefit while other Asian pupils did.
This theme of not all pupils being included also emerged when we compared all pupils with six or more years of school support with those with EHCPs and found comparably low attainment. The GCSE results of pupils with 6+ years of school support were so similar to those of pupils with statutory protection from an EHCP that we have dubbed this group the ‘shadow EHCP group’. This is an indication that more pupils might benefit from EHCPs, and seems directly at odds with recent suggestions that targets have been set for reducing the number of EHCPs issued by financially stressed local authorities.
An even more neglected subset of pupils can be found among pupils who speak EAL. While those who attended school throughout their secondary schooling typically attained well, for late arrivals, the picture of GCSE attainment was bleak. In the worst cases – those of white Irish, white and black Caribbean, black Caribbean and Gypsy Roma or Irish traveller pupils – those who arrived in years 10 or 11 and spoke English as an additional language had attainment in the bottom quarter, nationally. This is comparable with pupils with EHCPs.
We were not able to find any consistent evidence of mitigation of the disadvantage experienced by late EAL arrivals in schools with more teaching assistants or more teachers of ethnic minority backgrounds. This illustrates clearly that when needs are not identified and not provided for, inequality thrives and attainment gaps remain unaddressed.
There is much to do before we have a SEND system that provides early support and prevents needs from escalating, but there are things that could be learned from SEND policy and applied to EAL, such as the requirement for schools to have a SENCO, the provision of funded specialist training for teachers of children with autism, statutory assessment frameworks and the provision of targeted education funding to age 25.