EPI report highlights ‘urgent need’ for cross-sector approaches, says FEA

New research shows disadvantaged pupils are 18 months of learning behind their more affluent peers

Research published by the Education Policy Institute (EPI) shows that the attainment gap between poorer pupils and their more affluent peers has stopped closing.

Researchers found disadvantaged pupils (those who have been eligible for free school meals at any point in the last six years) in England are 18.1 months of learning behind their peers by the time they finish their GCSEs – the same gap as five years ago.

At primary school, the gap between poorer pupils and their peers was found to be 9.3 months – an increase for the first time since 2007. This could mean the gap will continue to widen at this phase.

The education disadvantage gap is a leading indicator of how the government is performing on social mobility. EPI said the research findings, which are based on Department for Education data, are likely to alarm policymakers, as the stalling of the gap occurred before the Covid-19 pandemic.

Education in England: Annual Report 2020 was published in partnership with the Fair Education Alliance (FEA) and Unbound Philanthropy.

Sam Butters and Gina Cicerone, co-CEOs of the FEA, said “the research highlights the urgent need for cross-sector approaches that tackle the root causes of inequality”.

They continued: “Our coalition of nearly 200 member organisations know that long-term change will only come from collective action involving teachers, government, parents, charities, businesses, and young people. We must work together to make fundamental changes in the education system rather than incremental attempts to make an unfair system a little bit less unfair.”

David Laws, executive chairman of the EPI, said: “This report highlights that in spite of the government’s aspiration to ‘level up’ opportunity, the education gap between poor children and the rest is no longer closing, for the first time in around a decade. Before the Covid crisis, disadvantaged children were around 1.5 years of learning behind other pupils, and this figure seems almost certain to have increased since the closure of schools.

“It is deeply concerning that our country entered the pandemic with such a lack of progress in this key area of social policy, and the government urgently needs to put in place new policy measures to help poor children to start to close the gap again.”

Other key findings

  • In reception, the gap has stagnated at 4.6 months, having largely stayed the same since 2013.
  • Last year EPI modelled that it would take over 500 years to eliminate the disadvantage gap at GCSE, based on the rate of progress. This year’s data suggests the gap is no longer closing at all.

Different levels of poverty

  • Children with a high persistence of poverty (those on free school meals for over 80% of their time at school) have a learning gap of 22.7 months – twice that of children with a low persistence of poverty (those on free schools meals for less than 20% of their time at school), who have a learning gap 11.3 months.
  • Significantly, the proportion of pupils with a high persistence of poverty is on the rise. Since 2017, the proportion of pupils in this group has risen from 34.8% to 36.7%. This recent increase appears to be an important contributor to the lack of progress with the gap overall.

Different areas of England

  • Large disadvantage gaps remain well-established in several regions in England but are particularly acute in the North, West Midlands and parts of the South.
  • In some areas, poorer pupils are over two full years of education behind their peers by the time they take their GCSEs, including in Blackpool (26.3 months), Knowsley (24.7 months) and Plymouth (24.5 months).
  • In contrast, there are very low GCSE disadvantage gaps concentrated in London, including in Ealing (4.6 months), Redbridge (2.7 months) and Westminster (0.5 months).

Pupil ethnicity

  • Gypsy/Roma pupils are almost three years (34 months) behind White British pupils at GCSE level. In contrast, Chinese pupils are two whole years (23.9 months) ahead of White British pupils in learning at this stage of their education.
  • Some ethnic groups have experienced growing inequalities over recent years. Black Caribbean pupils were 6.5 months behind White British pupils in 2011, but this gap has now regressed to 10.9 months, meaning that the gap has widened for Black Caribbean pupils by well over four months in the last eight years.
  • Gaps have also widened for pupils from other black backgrounds, and for pupils with English as an additional language who arrived late to the school system.

Vulnerable pupils

  • Looked after children (LAC) are nearly two and a half years (29.0 months) behind their peers by the time they finish their GCSEs. Progress in closing this gap is slow; it has reduced by only 1 month (3.3%) over the last six years.
  • Children in need (CIN) are 20 months behind their peers, while children in need with a Child Protection Plan (typically those who have experienced neglect, or physical, sexual or emotional abuse) are over two years (26 months) behind their peers.
  • Pupils with SEND who have an Education, Health and Care Plan (typically those with greater needs) are well over three years (41.1 months) behind their peers at the end of secondary school, while those with SEND without an EHCP are a full year (24.4 months) behind their peers.
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