Persistently disadvantaged children falling further behind peers

EPI report warns that at the current rate of progress it would take a full 50 years to reach an equitable education system

Published on 7th August 2017

The most disadvantaged pupils in England have fallen further behind their peers, a report by the Education Policy Institute has found.

Persistently disadvantaged pupils (those that have been eligible for free school meals for 80 per cent or longer of their school lives), are now on average over two full years of learning behind non-disadvantaged pupils by the end of secondary school and the attainment gap at the end of secondary school for these persistently disadvantaged pupils has widened slightly by 0.3 months since 2007.

The report notes however that there has been some progress in closing the gap for disadvantaged pupils on average in England since 2007, which has narrowed by three months by the end of secondary school. However, the gap is closing slowly and inconsistently – despite considerable investment and targeted intervention programmes by the government.

‘It would take 50 years to reach an equitable education system’

“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,” said the report.

“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,” it added.

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 two 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 the current rate of progress it would take a full 50 years to reach an equitable education system where disadvantaged pupils did not fall behind their peers during formal education to age 16,” added the report.

‘The gap is more prominent in rural areas’

The EPI also highlights significant regional differences:

  • The disadvantage gap is generally smaller in London, the South and the East (16 to 18 months)
  • 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.
  • In the Isle of Wight, disadvantaged pupils are well over two years (29 months) behind their peers by the end of secondary school.
  • Yet 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,” says the report.

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.

‘Closing the gap is taking too long’

The government has identified 12 Opportunity Areas that have growing and larger than average disadvantage gaps, but the EPI says that it has found that there are areas where the disadvantage gap has grown even faster.

As a result, the government should consider expanding Opportunity Areas to other local authority districts which have sizeable gaps which have increased since 2012 – including Darlington, Rossendale and Boston.

The analysis also finds that certain ethnic groups are falling behind. Black Caribbean pupils start off with average attainment but fall behind through primary and secondary school. By the end of secondary school there are very few Travellers of Irish Heritage and Gypsy /Roma pupils amongst the top 50 per cent of performers.

In addition to these groups, England’s education system also neglects those with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND), who to struggle to keep pace with their peers, the report warns.

“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 three generations before equality of outcomes is realised through our education system,” says the report.

Our children cannot afford to wait the three generations'

Chris Keates, General Secretary of the NASUWT said that the findings of the report are “sadly unsurprising,” highlighting that the factors which are common among pupils who are falling behind their peers include child poverty, insecure housing, poor physical and mental health among families and job insecurity and which “have all seen an increase as a result of the government’s austerity programme and reforms to welfare”.
“Schools are striving to do the best for every child they teach, but schools alone cannot tackle these social issues and plug the gap made by cuts to wider services and basic support on which many families rely and which help to provide children with the stability they need in order to focus on their learning and achieve at school.
“The task of schools in closing the attainment gap is made even harder when teacher supply is in crisis as a result of attacks on teachers’ pay, working conditions and professionalism.
“Our children cannot afford to wait the three generations this report predicts it will take, on current trends, to close the pupil attainment gap. We need effective action from the government on education, health, housing and the economy to tackle the root causes of the disadvantage and poverty which are key inhibitors to educational progression,” said Ms Keates.

Avis Gilmore, Assistant General Secretary, of the National Union of Teachers, said the repo gave a “sombre warning” to government that unless investment and the correct interventions are in place the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers will continue. “Local authorities and schools are being starved of cash resulting in the closure of or cut-backs to many essential support services for those pupils most in need.”

“Schools work hard to enhance the life chances of all children but they cannot compensate for poverty and inequality alone. Government is responsible for ensuring families have jobs, homes and enough to eat – these are the prerequisites for children’s learning. Government must also ensure schools are properly funded and resourced and have sufficient numbers of qualified teachers.

‘No silver bullet’

Paul Whiteman, general secretary designate of school leaders’ union NAHT said: “The government’s latest strategy is the creation of Opportunity Areas. Whilst its right to focus funding and support, Opportunity Areas must use evidence to back up their work otherwise they will join the long list of failed attempts to improve equality across Britain. Particular attention needs to be paid to pupils with special educational needs and disabilities.

“What’s clear is that if we are serious about improving equality in the UK, it would be wrong to expect schools to solve the problem alone. Cuts to local authority budgets have greatly reduced the sources of support for families on low incomes. Some of the areas where it is hardest to be socially mobile have suffered from decades of under-investment and shrinking opportunities for well-paid and highly skilled work.

“Schools in those areas have always struggled to attract teachers and whilst and no-one believes that there is a silver bullet that will provide the answer, without enough highly skilled and motivated teams in schools, equality of opportunity will always remain an unreachable goal. That is why NAHT believes there should be a national strategy for teacher recruitment that recognises teachers as high status professionals and guarantees enough teachers for every school.

“Those of us who work with the best interests of children and young people at heart have never underestimated the scale of the challenge and the investment needed.”

EPI report: Closing the Gap



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