Progress on closing the disadvantage gap in early years at a standstill

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The disadvantage gap has now stopped closing in the early years, and there is a real risk any progress made over recent years to eradicate it could be undone, warns a new report.


The EPI report says that if things continue the way they are, it will take over 500 years to close the disadvantage gap by the end of secondary school

According to the Education Policy Institute’s (EPI) annual State of Education report, the disadvantage gap has continued to narrow in primary school, but has now stopped closing in the early years and by the end of secondary school at Key Stage 4.

It measures the disadvantage gap by comparing the attainment of pupils eligible for the pupil premium funding due to deprivation and their peers. 

The EPI’s analysis covers the period from 2011 to 2018. For the early years, it starts in 2013 to coincide with the introduction of the current Early Years Foundation Stage Profile results. Over this period, it finds the disadvantage gap has closed across the early years, primary and secondary school. The largest closing of the gap is in the early years and primary.

However, between 2017 and 2018, only primary schools continued to narrow the gap. In the early years, there was no substantial change to the gap - it widened by 0.1 month to 4.5 months. The gap also widened in secondary schools.

The report finds on average, poorer pupils in England are now a year- and-a half behind their peers by the time they finish their GCSEs.

Pupils with special educational needs (SEND) remain significantly behind their peers at every stage, with those with an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP) experiencing the largest gap.

The report shows that disadvantage gaps continue to be larger, and are still growing, in the north of England. 

In the Government’s Opportunity Areas, performance since 2017 has been very mixed. For example, in Doncaster , both attainment and disadvantage gaps improved. However, Blackpool saw decreases in attainment and increases in the disadvantage gap in both the early years and the end of primary school.

The EPI says that if the five-year trend continues, it would take over 500 years for the disadvantage gap to close by the end of secondary school.

Given the ‘dramatic’ slowing down in the closure of the disadvantage gap and the rise in the gap in 2018, the EPI says there is ‘real risk’ that we could be at a turning point, and any progress made over recent years could be undone.


Report author Jo Hutchinson said, 'Our research shows that for the first time in several years, the gap between poorer pupils and their peers at GCSE has stopped closing. Trends suggest that this disadvantage gap may now be taking a new direction, where it begins to widen.

'There has also been no progress in closing the gap this year for children with special educational needs and disabilities.'

Rt. Hon. David Laws, executive chairman of the Education Policy Institute, said, 'We are now witnessing a major setback for social mobility in our country. Recent progress on narrowing the education gap between poor children and the rest has ground to a halt. Indeed, the very poorest children are actually further behind now than they were a decade ago - they are almost 2 years of learning on average behind other children by the time they take their GCSEs.

'Educational inequality on this scale is bad for both social mobility and economic productivity. This report should be a wake up call for our new Prime Minister. We need a renewed policy drive to narrow the disadvantage gap - and this needs to be based on evidence of what makes an impact, rather than on political ideology or guesswork.'

The National Education Union urged the new cabinet to ‘think again on education’.

Assistant general secretary Rosamund McNeil said, ‘Cutting school funding dramatically while at the same time driving more families deeper into poverty comes at a high cost for poor and working-class students. The Government expects heads and teachers to "close the gap" for disadvantaged pupils whilst ignoring United Nations evidence of how its own policies are widening the poverty gap. We shouldn't be surprised by these findings, but they should urgently trigger a change in approach.

‘The Government must commit to proactively reducing child poverty and commit to ending it. They must also provide what schools need to make education accessible – fair pay rises to retain motivated teachers, reversal of the funding cuts, and a curriculum broad and flexible enough to motivate all learners and respond to the reality of their lives.’

Voice the union and the Early Years Alliance said that the Government must address underfunding ‘urgently’.

General secretary Deborah Lawson explained, ‘Many of these issues can be seen as the unintended consequences of long-term austerity measures.

‘Without an increase in funding, a widening of the disadvantage gap may be inevitable.’

Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Early Years Alliance, added, ‘We have warned the Government for some time of the potential damage to social mobility because of the funding shortfall in early years education. 

‘Not only has underfunding plunged the early years sector into crisis, today’s report shows how it risks harming the children who most need quality, early years education to keep pace with their more advantaged peers.

‘This should be a wake-up call to the Government, and an urgent priority for the new children and families minister.’

Department for Education response

School standards minister Nick Gibb said,The gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers has narrowed considerably in both primary and secondary schools since 2011. During that time this Government has delivered a range of reforms to ensure every child, regardless of their background, gets a high-quality education. We are investing £2.4 billion this year alone through the Pupil Premium to help the most disadvantaged children.

‘Teachers and school leaders are helping to drive up standards right across the country, with 85 per cent of children now in good or outstanding schools compared to just 66 per cent in 2010, but there is more to do to continue to attract and retain talented individuals in our classrooms.’

  • The report is available here
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