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The Problem On GCSE Results Day: The Persistent Attainment Gap

24/08/2016 13:35 | Updated 24 August 2016

GCSE results day, fast approaching tomorrow, always brings back memories of the day I got my own results. The anxious wait (the anxious parents), friends screaming with joy, from some a few tears, relieved teachers. Now, working for an organisation that exists to tackle educational inequality, GCSE results day is an acute reminder that the gap between disadvantaged pupils and their more affluent peers remains frustratingly high. Last year, for those achieving the all important benchmark of 5 A*-C grades including English and maths at GCSE, it stood at 28% between those pupils in receipt of free school meals and the more advantaged. To add to this, in the UK the correspondence of parents' wealth with a child's educational attainment is among the strongest in the developed world.

Action Tutoring is one educational charity playing a part in addressing this, by recruiting and training high quality volunteer tutors to support pupils from low income backgrounds preparing for GCSEs, who are at risk of leaving school without basic qualifications. What begun 5 years ago as a small pilot programme with two London schools, has grown rapidly to work in 6 cities across the UK, supporting over 1300 pupils from low income backgrounds each year. This rapid growth has largely been due to the willingness of so many people to volunteer as a tutor, at this crucial point in a child's education. For the 650 dedicated volunteers who've taken part in our programmes this year, it's an anxious wait to find out the GCSE results too.

I don't believe though that it's lack of motivation from pupils that's the problem when it comes to the attainment gap. Week after week, we see pupils turning up to their tutoring sessions at the end of a long school day, determined to give themselves the best shot of achieving the all important grades. In the Spring term this year, we carried out a survey of over 400 pupils on our programmes across 34 schools in our 6 cities, all preparing to sit their GCSEs, asking them about their future goals. What was obvious was their ambition: 56% wanted to progress to A Levels. Only 1% wanted to go straight into work, with most wanting to get further qualifications under their belts first. Furthermore, 72% said they definitely wanted to go on to university or were strongly thinking about it.

Strikingly, despite the fact that all of these pupils come from schools with a much higher than average percentage of pupils eligible for free school meals, 60% said they knew someone their age who had paid for private tutoring outside of school. The EEF research on the impact of tutoring suggests that tutoring can add up to 5 months of additional progress and our evaluation last year showed that with 7-8 tutoring sessions, pupils made up to half a grade more progress than their non-tutored peers. Our survey highlighted that pupils are well aware of the impact tutoring can have too. 88% agreed or strongly agreed that tutoring would give them an advantage in their exams and 93% agreed or strongly agreed that tutoring gives you a chance to improve your grade.

So, the evidence demonstrates that tutoring works and pupils know it too. However, with the Sutton Trust reporting that 44% of pupils in London and nearly 1 in 4 pupils nationwide now have private tutoring, often at £30 an hour or more, the potential for this to contribute to the attainment gap is ever greater and the imperative to make the benefits of tutoring available where it's needed regardless of background is surely ever stronger. Teachers do an incredible job, but inevitably if you are teaching a class of 30 you cannot give them the same attention as you can in a 1:1 session. Working with schools, volunteers can play a vital role in equipping pupils to achieve those crucial grades that will enable them to progress to further education, employment or training; narrowing the attainment gap and ensuring a bright future for all regardless of background.

Educational inequality in the UK isn't going to disappear over night. We know we can't close the gap on our own - many others out there such as the Fair Education Alliance, Teach First and The Access Project, to name just a few, are all working with us to address this issue. However, as September brings a new academic year and a fresh start, we can certainly make a contribution and every teacher and volunteer across the country can be a part of that story too. Ambition is not the problem and with the right support and opportunities available to them, young people, regardless of background, can achieve.

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