No improvement in school attainment gap in England for 20 years, says report |  education

No improvement in school attainment gap in England for 20 years, says report | education

The achievement gap between poorer students and their better-off classmates is as wide now as it was 20 years ago, according to a damning new report that says the coronavirus pandemic is likely to have widened educational inequalities

The landmark study, based on research carried out for the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) and funded by the Nuffield Foundation, found that disadvantaged pupils start school behind their better-off peers, and these inequalities persist throughout the school years and beyond – ultimately affecting earnings.

The authors state that there is overwhelming evidence that the education system in England is leaving too many young people behind, and despite decades of policy focus, there has been little or no change in the educational attainment gap between children from different backgrounds.

The report said: “Despite decades of policy attention, there has been virtually no change in the ‘disadvantage gap’ in GCSE attainment over the past 20 years. While GCSE attainment has increased over time, 16-year-olds who are eligible for free school meals still around 27 percentage points less likely to earn good GCSEs than less disadvantaged peers.”

At the start of their educational journey, only 57% of English pupils eligible for free school meals achieved a good level of development by the end of reception in 2019, compared to 74% of their better-off peers, the report notes.

Failure is “baked in” at an early age, say the authors. Fewer than half of disadvantaged children reached expected levels of achievement by the end of primary school, compared with almost 70% of their more advantaged peers. Of those achieving at the expected level, only 40% of disadvantaged pupils get good GCSEs in English and maths, compared to 60% of more advantaged pupils.

Perhaps the biggest failure of the education system, the report suggests, is that for those who leave school with poor GCSEs, there is a lack of a clear path and “second chances”, leaving millions disadvantaged throughout life.

The report finds that the relationship between family background and achievement is not limited to the poorest, but educational outcomes improve as family income increases. Just over 10% of youngsters in middle-earning families got at least one A or A* grade at GCSE, compared with a third of pupils from the richest tenth of families.

These inequalities lead to large differences in earnings, the report says, noting that by the age of 40 the average UK worker with a degree earns twice as much as someone qualified to GCSE level or below.

“These challenges are set to become more acute,” the report concludes. “The Covid-19 pandemic put the education system under enormous strain, with significant learning losses overall and a huge increase in educational inequalities.

“Perhaps even more damaging in the longer term will be the social, emotional and behavioral consequences of missing out on classroom learning and formative experiences during the shutdowns.”

Imran Tahir, a research economist at the IFS and author of the report, said: “We cannot expect the education system to overcome all the differences between children from different family backgrounds. But the English system could do much better.

“If the government is to fulfill its mission to get 90% of students to achieve the expected level at the end of primary school [as stated in its recent schools white paper]it must prioritize the education system and especially the disadvantaged students within it.”

Bridget Phillipson, the shadow education secretary, said: “Some 12 years of Conservative governments have completely failed to tackle inequalities across the education system, which are failing our children and holding back young people’s opportunities and life chances.

“200,000 primary school children do not have access to a good or outstanding school, teachers are leaving our schools in record numbers, GCSE grades among children on free school meals are slipping. The Tories are messing with school structures and not improving children’s outcomes.”

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, added: “Government policy is in a rut of meaningless targets, empty rhetoric and pitiful levels of funding.

“We need to see investment in early education, better support for schools facing the biggest challenges, funding for schools and post-16 education that matches need, and a reassessment of qualifications and curriculum so that they work well for all students.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Since 2011, we have been reducing the attainment gap between disadvantaged students and their peers at every stage of education until the pandemic, and recent figures show that a record proportion of the most disadvantaged students are going on to higher education.

“As part of our work to increase opportunities for all, we have invested almost £5 billion to help young people recover from the impact of the pandemic – with over 2 million tutoring courses now started by the students who need them most – together with an ambitious goal that 90% of children will leave primary school with the expected standard in reading, writing and mathematics by 2030.”

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