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Low income pupils’ progress at secondary school

One of the great injustices of the British education system is that pupils from low income backgrounds are less likely to make good progress at secondary school compared to better off peers. The gap between low income pupils’ attainment at the end of primary school and the end of secondary school has widened; since 2012 low income pupils have been making less progress year on year compared to their more affluent peers. Even when low income pupils out-perform their more advantaged peers at primary school, they are often overtaken during the next phase of their education. The implications of low income pupils’ poorer progress are most visible as children finish secondary school; when they are often left without the qualifications that might create opportunities for them later in life.

As teachers, school leaders and policy makers, we hope that schools can be engines of social change. However, the stalled progress of pupils from lower income families - especially the most vulnerable; those with SEND or mental health issues, or who are looked after – suggests too few lives are being transformed at a system level. Indeed, in some cases schools may be actively (though unintentionally) perpetuating the injustices that they hope to challenge.

This report sheds light on the barriers to progress that low income pupils face at secondary school. Part One reveals the magnitude of the gap in progress between low income pupils and their peers at GCSE, and highlights the differing nature of the ‘progress gap’ for pupils with different levels of attainment at the end of primary school. Using data from the National Pupil Database, it goes on to explore how a range of factors influence the progress gap.

Part Two of the report brings together findings from the existing literature to explore the range of causal factors that contribute to the progress gap at secondary school. Throughout the literature review, we draw on eight case studies of secondary schools where low income pupils make varying levels of progress to exemplify how the causal factors identified in the literature create barriers for pupils, as well as the steps schools have taken to reduce the progress gap. These case studies also ensure that we do not overlook any issues or factors not currently explored in the literature.