Each year, the Education Policy Institute assesses how well children from disadvantaged backgrounds are performing in school compared to non-disadvantaged pupils.
Our Education in England: Annual Report 2018, released today, finds that the gap in GCSE English and maths performance is closing more slowly than in recent years – indeed, at current rates, it would take more than 100 years for the disadvantage gap to close. Meanwhile, the gap between persistently poor pupils and their peers has not closed, or improved at all, in the last six years.
Despite initiatives like the Pupil Premium, Teach First and the academy programmes all aimed at boosting the attainment of disadvantaged pupils and social mobility, our analysis suggests that the education system is currently not meeting the Department for Education’s objective of advancing equality.
Overwhelmingly, the evidence points in one direction: to effectively tackle the attainment gap, policies must address the factors underlying poorer pupils’ performance in school. The socio-economic gap in attainment cannot be divorced from other inequalities; we know that challenging socio-economic circumstances are strongly linked to family stress and poorer relationships, as well as worse physical and mental health and wellbeing. These experiences are intertwined with a child’s ability to learn and perform in school.
Lately, we have seen some alarming figures on vulnerability among children in England: the Children’s Commissioner’s Office estimates that at least 2.1 million children live with an adult experiencing domestic violence, mental ill health and/or substance abuse – with three quarters of them not receiving any coordinated support at a national level. Furthermore, there has been a rise since 2010 in the number of children subject to the most acute forms of social care monitoring and intervention. Meanwhile, the latest NHS figures show the highest number of active children and adolescent mental health services referrals to date.
These are the children at most risk of low attainment in school. Our analysis finds that children with a special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) lag 15 months behind their peers by age five, and the gap widens to three years by the end of secondary school. Only two in five children in contact with social services reach a good level of development in the early years of education, compared to 70% of other children – and one in five achieve A* to C in English and maths GCSEs compared to 63% of other pupils.
In addition to being at a higher risk of these vulnerabilities, disadvantaged pupils are more likely to lack a sense of belonging in school and confidence in their academic abilities. These anxieties may be exacerbated by an unstable teaching workforce, and day-to-day experiences in the classroom, including unconscious bias, placement into lower ability groups, and limited access to out-of-classroom educational experiences. They are also more likely to miss out on the benefits of out-of-school enrichment activities and private tuition.
While there are a number of evidence-based interventions that can be applied at school to boost the attainment of disadvantaged pupils, a joined-up approach that addresses overlapping vulnerabilities both in and outside of the classroom is likely to be most effective. This must be buttressed by sufficiently funded and well-staffed provision for families in disadvantaged circumstances, from the very beginning, at pregnancy - and onwards, throughout a child’s life.
The most important branch of this strategy in schools is ensuring a highly-trained and stable teaching and support workforce, especially in schools serving disadvantaged communities, with the experience to effectively address individual pupils’ barriers to learning. While there has been some success in reducing levels of disadvantage in education in recent years, our report today suggests that this progress is stalling. The body of evidence on both the causes of educational inequality, and the potential remedial measures, is becoming increasingly clear.
If policy-makers are committed to improving social mobility, they should consider the evidence put before them.