The divide between poorer pupils and their peers is not closing nearly fast enoughby Whitney Crenna-Jennings / August 1, 2018 / Leave a comment
Raising the academic attainment of poorer pupils has been an explicit aim of the last four British governments. Over the last 20 years a range of policies, from sponsored academies to the Pupil Premium, have been introduced to this end.
To date, a degree of success can be claimed: the attainment gap between disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged pupils is in the process of narrowing. This week, in a major speech on social mobility, Education Secretary Damian Hinds set out his plans to ensure that this progress was maintained.
Yet while the direction of travel has been broadly positive over the past two decades, the Education Policy Institute’s latest Annual Report finds that progress has significantly slowed in the last few years.
The gap remains glaring. Pupils eligible for free school meals are one and a half years behind non-disadvantaged pupils by the time they sit their GCSEs. The very worst off, those with little to no family employment for most of their school lives, are two whole years behind—a gap that has not shifted since 2011. Alarmingly, we find that at the current rate, the disadvantage gap in education is not set to close until 2155.
To compound these concerns, our analysis also finds that social segregation of pupils after they leave school is increasing, with a higher proportion of non-disadvantaged pupils entering sixth forms. This kind of socio-economic divide reinforces the gap between technical and academic routes, particularly pertinent as the government rolls out new technical qualifications. It undermines efforts for parity of esteem.
Meanwhile other indicators of social mobility in England are flashing red. The intergenerational wealth and income gap is growing, and housing costs for the poorest families with children have risen by 50 per cent in the last 15 years. A third of children live in relative after-housing-cost poverty, up 3 percentage points in the last five years. We are also seeing a widening disparity between the outcomes of disadvantaged children and young people in London and the rest of the country.
Policy-makers hold up education as a cornerstone of social mobility, yet EPI’s findings suggest that the education system is failing to deliver. Indeed, international evidence shows that England has some of the widest social inequalities in educational outcomes among high-income countries.
Why is this the case? The attainment gaps we find in schools cannot be walled off from other social inequalities. How a child performs is a product of many layered factors.
Children must have a good level of health and well-being—largely a function of support provided from the very beginning. This includes good quality housing, access to books and educational experiences that promote cognitive stimulation, as well as positive interfamily relationships. Communities and local services matter too. Challenging social and economic circumstances make it less likely that children benefit from these experiences, and begin school prepared to learn and progress.
Most worrying of all,the number of children deemed to be at the highest risk of harm, and who require acute social care interventions, is on the rise. These young people are more likely to display poor school attainment, and be affected by mental ill health and crime.
Once in school, poorer children face further hurdles: schools serving disadvantaged communities are more likely to be characterised by higher teacher turnover and a less experienced workforce. More disadvantaged pupils experience destabilising moves, marking down in assessments and stigmatising placement into lower ability groups regardless of prior attainment. The psychological stress that results from these experiences is linked to poorer attainment.
With these problems seemingly deep-rooted, what interventions should we prioritise to combat them?
While it is unreasonable to lay responsibility for tackling the impact of educational disadvantage solely at the feet of schools and teachers, there are still several well-evidenced practices that would make a difference. Firstly, ensuring a highly trained teaching and support workforce across all schools, especially in disadvantaged parts of the country, with the experience to effectively address individual pupils’ barriers to learning. Secondly, schools should give higher priority to pupil well-being, including their mental health.
These should form part of a wider, cross-government strategy to address vulnerabilities that we know are associated with poor attainment. There is solid evidence that poverty reduction, addressing stress and mental ill-health among pregnant womenand new mothers, and ensuring well-resourced provision in disadvantaged areas, would have a material impact. Ensuring equitable access to intervention services at the earliest part of a child’s life is also key—of concern given the 60 per cent drop in expenditure on early and preventative children’s services since 2009/10.
While we have not yet identified the precise formula for closing the attainment gap, we know more than enough to improve pupil outcomes—and prevent social mobility from stalling further.