Think tank argues it is taking 'too long' to close attainment gap

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The gap between disadvantaged and advantaged children is closing, but at a very slow rate, finds a new report on social mobility.


The EPI report found there was no attainment gap in the London borough of Newham

According to the Closing the Gap report published by the Education Policy Institute (EPI) today, between 2007 and 2016, the disadvantage gap by the end of primary school narrowed by 2.8 months and the gap by age five narrowed by 1.2 months.

While it finds there has been some small improvement in closing the gap, is says it is taking far too long. The EPI warns that if we carry on at this pace, at least a further three generations will be lost before 'equality of outcomes is realised through the education system.'

The report examines how well early years settings and schools are serving disadvantaged children by measuring the gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers.

It finds 'significant' variation across the country, with the disadvantage gap smaller overall in London, the South and the East, but larger in the East Midlands, the Humber, the North and South West.

In the London borough of Newham (pictured), for example there was no attainment gap in the early years in 2016.

It also says that the disadvantaged gap grows as children progress through the education system. Across local authorities, the gap in the early years varies from no gap to seven months, five to 13 months at the end of primary school, and one month to over two years at the end of secondary school.

The EPI says the findings demonstrate the need to intervene earlier in a child's life.

The report also considers how the gap varies between local areas, the Department for Education's 12 Opportunity Areas and 'vulnerable learners' - children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), from particular ethnic groups and those who don't have English as a first language.

Looking at the 12 Opportunity Areas, the report reveals that disadvantaged pupils in these parts of the country are even further behind non-disadvantaged pupils nationally.

The Department for Education’s 12 Opportunity Areas – the areas considered the most challenged when it comes to social mobility, are – West Somerset, Norwich, Blackpool, Scarborough, Derby, Oldham, Bradford, Doncaster, Fenland & East Cambridgeshire, Hastings, Ipswich and Stoke-on-Trent.

It finds that as of 2016, pupils in Hastings had the highest levels of attainment in the early years compared to the other areas, with 76 per cent of children achieving a ‘good level of development’. However, their ‘relative attainment’ dropped 'dramatically' in primary to below average levels at 46 per cent for both Opportunity Areas and the rest of England.

East Cambridgeshire also performed well with 71 per cent of children in the early years achieving a ‘good level of development’.

West Somerset early years children had the lowest levels of attainment in the Opportunity Areas at 59 per cent, but secondary school pupils had the second highest levels at 33 per cent.

For children with English as an additional language (EAL), the EPI finds that overall pupils have lower attainment than their non-EAL peers during primary school, but by the end of secondary school, this gap has disappeared altogether.

For Pupils with SEND, it finds 'unsurpisingly' that they are disproportionately found at the 'lower end of the attainment distribution'. However, the report acknowledges that these children are found across the 'attainment distribution'.

Natalie Perera, executive director and head of research at the EPI, said, ‘As the report highlights, the socio-economic gap emerges in the early years and, in some parts of the country, the gap is larger than six months by age five. For many groups of children, the gap continues to widen as they progress through primary school and we find that, on average, the socio-economic gap has grown to 9.5 months by the age of 11.

‘These findings demonstrate the need to intervene earlier in a child's life if we are to secure real equality of opportunity and outcomes. Leaving it to secondary schools is simply too late when the vast majority of inequality is already entrenched much earlier on.’

A Department for Education spokesperson said, 'We are determined to ensure that all children, regardless of their background, get the excellent education they deserve.

'Our data, which looks at the number of children who have been eligible for free school meals in the last six years, shows the attainment gap between disadvantaged children and their peers has narrowed since 2011.

'But there is more to do. That is why, through the Pupil Premium, we are investing almost  £2.5bn of additional funding this year to support schools in raising the attainment of disadvantaged pupils.

'On top of this, our £72m Opportunity Areas programme will not only create opportunities for young people in social mobility ‘coldspots’ across the country, but best practice will be spread wider to more schools to ensure all young people get the opportunities they deserve.'

Labour's shadow education secretary Angela Rayner said, 'The findings of this report are deeply concerning but unfortunately come as no surprise.

'If you cut school budgets and push out teachers, as the Tories have done, then life in school will become even harder for the most disadvantaged kids. It is no wonder that we are still generations away from closing the attainment gap.

'The Tories’ key election pledge was to bring back grammar schools and segregate our children, a move that would make the situation even worse. A Labour Government would deliver an education system for the many, not the few.'

Sector response

Commenting on the report, Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Pre-school Learning Alliance, said, 'Given how much emphasis the Government has placed on the need to improve social mobility, it’s both disappointing and frustrating that so little progress is being made in this area. The fact that the gap is actually widening for those children who are most persistently disadvantaged is even more concerning.

'Time and time again, research has shown that if you want to improve social mobility, you should focus on the early years. And yet somehow we find ourselves in a situation where children’s centres are closing down across the country, and early years providers are still having to struggle for survival in the face of chronic underfunding. This simply isn’t good enough.

'As the report rightly argues, we don’t have time to waste on this. If the Government truly wants to "close the gap" and bring about long-term change, it should put its money where it will be most effective – and that means adequately investing in early years services.'

Dr Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), said, 'This is yet another report that shows the Government is not doing enough to close the achievement gap between disadvantage pupils and their peers.

'The report demonstrates that the link between social demography and educational destiny has not been broken. There is still a huge distance between those at the bottom and those at the top in terms of earnings, life-chances, life-expectancy, and more. These aspects are what makes the difference in educational achievement.

'The solutions do not lie entirely with schools; for the best results for young people, we must end child poverty and then go further to create a less unequal society. The Government therefore needs to address root causes of disadvantage as well as provide money for those services beyond schools that support children, young people and families.

'Rather than forcing continuous change in education, the Government should prioritise closing this gap. This will require sufficient funding and investment in trained, qualified staff in schools and colleges.'

  • For more on the report see next week's Nursery World magazine.


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