Disadvantage gap will take 'more than 100 years' to close

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Children must be given equal access to high quality early years provision to tackle educational inequality, a leading think-tank has said.

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The call comes from the Education Policy Institute, as its annual report finds that progress in closing the gap between disadvantaged children and their peers has stalled.

Based on current trends the EPI says it will take over 100 years to close the disadvantage gap in English and Maths at the end of secondary school, with the gap not forecast to close until 2155.

For children in 2017 the gap between disadvantaged children - that is pupils eligible for free school meals at any point in the previous six years -  and their peers is an average of 4.3 months in development behind in the early years, rising to 9.4 months at the end of primary school, and 18.4 months after children take their GCSEs in secondary school.

'In order to assess whether the gap is now closing faster or slower than previously, we have created a projection of how long it will take the GCSE English and maths gap to close based on the most recent five years of data,' the report says.

When English and maths GCSE results are compared, the gap between those on the pupil premium and others shrunk by 0.1 of a month to 18 months in 2016-17.

Children with special educational needs and disabilities are particularly vulnerable, with the gap in the early years 15 months, two years by the end of primary school, and over three years at the end of secondary school.

To measure performance in the early years, the researchers looked at the total point score of children as measured by the Early Years Foundation Stage Profile (EYFSP), as opposed to the proportion of children achieving the Government’sbenchmark of ‘a good Level of development’.

Each year, the Department for Education (DfE) publishes a range of data showing how well schools and other education providers have met attainment benchmarks at different Key Stages. It also publishes data on the socio-economic gap in attainment in the early years, at the end of Key Stage 2 (primary) and at the end of Key Stage 4 (secondary).

The EPI says that ‘while this information is helpful, it can be complex to navigate and it doesn’t always give a comprehensive picture of the state of education in
England.’

It says that by providing a detailed its analysis of published and unpublished data aims to show the true extent of education standards in England, across the age-range and across the country.

The report’s key recommendations for policymakers are:

Equalise access to high quality early years provision;

  • Ensure a high quality and stable teaching workforce across the country, including in the most disadvantaged schools;
  • Prioritise pupil well-being alongside academic attainment;
  • Ensure early and sustained additional support for those who are behind with attainment;
  • Provide access to a broad curriculum that includes out-of-classroom experiences;
  • Promote a strategy of poverty alleviation – which forms the basis of a programme to improve the attainment of disadvantaged pupils, and
  • Support maternal health and well-being throughout childhood.

 

Early years 

The report highlights concerns about access for all children to high-quality early years education.

It says, ’The quality of pre-school depends primarily on the early years workforce. A stable, highly trained and experienced early years workforcewill not only support the healthy development of children in a sensitive period of life, but will be able to identify and refer children with additional needs for support at an early stage.

'However, the outlook for equal access to high quality pre-school is concerning, as illustrated in two recent EPI reports: firstly, we found that the introduction of
the 30-hour childcare entitlement, Tax-Free Childcare, and Universal Credit will likely benefit more affluent families, and, secondly, that the level of qualifications of the early years workforce is falling.’

Commenting on the findings, Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Pre-school Learning Alliance, said, ‘It’s both disappointing and concerning to see that, despite much Government rhetoric on the issue, there has been such little change in the attainment gap in this country over recent years.

‘As this report rightly points out, equal access to high-quality childcare and early education plays a key role in ensuring that children from more disadvantaged backgrounds have the same opportunities as their peers. But of course, this has to be supported by sensible government policy and EPI is also right to point out that current early years policy - and in particular, the 30 hour and tax-free childcare - does little to help achieve this aim, disproportionately benefiting wealthier families over and above those more in need of support.

‘It is by now well-established that if you want to improve a child's life chances, you need to start in the early years. If the Government truly is committed to “closing the gap”, it must not only invest what's needed into the sector, but also make sure that this money is being spent where it will have the greatest impact.’

Purnima Tanuku, chief executive of National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA) said, ‘The notion that it could take 100 years to close the attainment gap between the most disadvantaged children and their peers is totally unacceptable in this day and age.
‘We have long been highlighting the need for proper investment in high quality early years education and early intervention for two-year-olds from deprived communities. This is the key to supporting children reach their full potential in the long term and to reduce this unacceptable gap.

‘All children must have equal access to high quality early years education and this can only be achieved by adequate government investment. Private, voluntary and independent nurseries deliver the vast majority of funded places for two, three and pre-school four-year-olds in England. They are struggling to offer sufficient places due to the challenges of inadequate funding levels, rising business and staffing costs, late payments from local authorities and increased amounts of administration caused by the 30 hours policy.

‘Due to local authority budget cuts, SEND funding has been reduced in a number of areas which is putting even more strain on the sector.

‘If the Government really wants the social mobility agenda to work, it must address these issues. The early years sector would then thrive and unlock enough quality places for all young children to achieve their best and set them up for a life of learning.’

In response, the Government insisted the gap was closing.

Children and families Minister Nadhim Zahawi said, ‘Closing the attainment gap to make sure every child fulfils their potential is a key priority for this Government. In fact, the gap has closed by 3.2 per cent in the last year alone – one of the highest reductions we’ve seen since 2011.

‘To ensure this continues, we are targeting support at some of the poorest areas of the country through our £72m Opportunity Areas programme and our Social Mobility Action Plan is focusing £800 million of resources on helping disadvantaged children.
‘This builds on the 1.9 million more children now in good or outstanding schools than in 2010 – up from 66 per cent of pupils in 2010 to 86 per cent of pupils as of March 2018.’

  • Read the Education in England: Annual Report 2018 here
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