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Closing the gap? Trends in Educational Attainment and Disadvantage

Successive governments have sought to improve social mobility in England so that young people, whatever their background, have the opportunity to succeed and fulfil their potential. The school system has long been considered a vital tool to support equality of opportunity and to secure better outcomes for disadvantaged young people.

In this report, we examine how well the school system is serving disadvantaged young people. We do this by measuring the gap between disadvantaged pupils (those eligible for the Pupil Premium) and their peers and we consider how that gap varies between local areas and whether it has closed over time.

Our first important finding is that the gap is closing, but at a very slow rate. Indeed, despite significant investment and targeted intervention programmes, the gap between disadvantaged 16 year old pupils and their peers has only narrowed by three months of learning between 2007 and 2016. In 2016, the gap nationally, at the end of secondary school, was still 19.3 months. In fact, disadvantaged pupils fall behind their more affluent peers by around 2 months each year over the course of secondary school.

Over the same period (2007 – 2016), the gap by the end of primary school narrowed by 2.8 months and the gap by age 5 narrowed by 1.2 months. At current trends, we estimate that it would take around 50 years for the disadvantage gap to close completely by the time pupils take their GCSEs.

For pupils who are persistently disadvantaged (i.e. those that have been eligible for free school meals for 80 per cent or longer of their school lives), the gap at the end of secondary school has widened slightly since 2007, by 0.3 months. In 2016, it stood at 24.3 months, equivalent to over two years of learning.

There is also significant variation across the country. Once again, we find that the disadvantage gap is generally smaller in London, the South and the East (16 to 18 months) while in the East Midlands and the Humber, the North and the South West, the gap is significantly larger, at 22 months by the end of Key Stage 4. Indeed, in the Isle of Wight, disadvantaged pupils are well over two years (29 months) behind their peers by the end of secondary school.

At the other end of the scale, in Newham, disadvantaged five year olds are, on average, achieving as well as non-disadvantaged five year olds nationally. This indicates the potential scope for dramatic improvements in narrowing the gaps across the rest of England.

We also find that the gap becomes more prominent in rural areas by the end of secondary school. In areas such a Cumbria and Northumberland, the gap is 9 months at end of Key Stage 2 but widens significantly to over 25 months by the end of Key Stage 4.

Some areas, such as Richmond-upon-Thames and Windsor and Maidenhead have been notably successful at improving outcomes for disadvantaged secondary school pupils over the past few years. Since 2012, the gap in these areas has closed by over 6 months, when compared to local authorities that had similar gaps.However, other areas are going backwards. Disadvantaged pupils in Darlington, Leeds, Liverpool, Redcar and Cleveland, North Somerset and Blackpool are doing relatively worse now than they were back in 2012.

The Department for Education’s current plans include improving outcomes in specific parts of the country, include identifying and prioritising ‘Opportunity Areas’. While the 12 Opportunity Areas identified by the Department do, indeed, have growing and larger than average disadvantage gaps we find that there are areas where the disadvantage gap has grown even faster. We identify a further 8 local authority districts that are in the bottom quarter for the size of the gap and change in the gap since 2012 at both primary and secondary. These include Darlington, Rossendale and Boston.

Finally, we consider the overall distribution of attainment for disadvantaged pupils and compare that to other groups that might be considered as vulnerable learners – pupils with special educational needs and disabilities, pupils whose first language is other than English, and particular ethnic groups.

We demonstrate that no group is summarised adequately by point estimates or threshold measures. Low and high attainers are found in nearly every characteristic examined. Travellers of Irish Heritage and Gypsy/Roma pupils are broadly an exception to this. There are relatively few such pupils in the with above average attainment and they are disproportionately clustered towards the very bottom of the attainment distribution.

Further investigation is required to understand the underlying causes of the patterns seen and to bring out the very different circumstances that pupils with the same characteristics may experience.

Whilst pupils with English as an additional language (EAL) make more progress and achieve higher outcomes, on average, than others, there are still significant numbers who have low attainment. The analysis here does not take into account the different levels of English proficiency that different ‘EAL pupils’ have, nor the time that they have spent in England’s school system – just over 40 per cent of the Key Stage 4 EAL cohort joined an English state-school at some point after the foundation stage.

In conclusion, we find that, while there has been some small improvement in closing the gap between disadvantaged pupil and their peers, it is taking far too long. If we carry on at this pace, we will lose at least a further 3 generations before equality of outcomes is realised through our education system.

The Education Policy Institute will be conducting further, detailed research on this issue, under our Vulnerable Learners Programme.