The rhetoric of social mobility continues… yet disadvantaged pupils continue to fall behind

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By Heather Cameron

Despite continued investment to improve social mobility, it has been estimated that at the current rate of progress it will take 50 years to close the attainment gap for disadvantaged pupils in England.

Recent analysis of government data shows the gap between the most disadvantaged pupils and their non-disadvantaged peers has actually worsened over the past decade.

The research, conducted by the Education Policy Institute (EPI), found that while there has been some progress in closing the gap for disadvantaged pupils (those eligible for the Pupil Premium), this has been slow and inconsistent. The gap has also been shown to vary between areas.

And, perhaps most worryingly, for pupils described as ‘persistently disadvantaged’ (i.e. those that have been eligible for free school meals for 80% or longer of their school lives), the gap has widened – leaving these pupils over a year behind their non-disadvantaged peers at the end of primary school and more than two years behind at the end of secondary school.

Widening gap

The attainment gap is evident in the early years, continuing to grow throughout school.

Pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds were found to be 19.2 months on average behind their peers at the end of Key Stage 4. While this represents a narrowing of the gap by 2.7 months since 2007, this is not consistent across the board. And the gap for ‘persistently disadvantaged’ pupils increased by 2.4 months over the same period.

The EPI analysis indicates that the disadvantage gap grows by five months between Key Stage 1 and 2, and by 10 months between Key Stage 2 and 4.

Persistently disadvantaged pupils are shown to fall even further behind at all phases. For them, the gap grows from six months at the end of Key Stage 1, to 12 months by the end of Key Stage 2 and 24 months by the end of Key Stage 4.

It is argued that the differential rates of progress pupils make need to be tackled to stop the gap from growing throughout the stages.

Indeed, the issue can’t be solved with a one size fits all approach, particularly as there is significant variation across the country.

Variation

The disadvantage gap between local authorities ranges from no gap to seven months in the early years, five to 13 months at the end of primary school and one month to over two years at the end of secondary.

The gap is generally smaller in London, the South and the East at around 16-18 months at the end of secondary. In comparison, the East Midlands and the Humber, the North and the South West experience a much larger gap of 22 months. The largest attainment gap was found on the Isle of Wight, where disadvantaged pupils were 29 months behind their peers on leaving secondary school.

The gap was also found to become worse in rural areas. In Cumbria and Northumberland, for example, the gap widens from nine months at the end of Key Stage 2 to over 25 months by the end of secondary.

But there is also evidence of particularly good performance and notable improvements made in recent years. In Newham, disadvantaged five year-olds perform as well as non-disadvantaged five year-olds nationally, on average. And in Richmond-upon-Thames and Windsor and Maidenhead, the gap for disadvantaged secondary school pupils has closed by over six months since 2012.

This would suggest that there is certainly potential for dramatic improvements in reducing the gap in other areas.

Government action

As an historic problem, successive governments have taken action to address it via investment and targeted interventions. The current government is also working to address the issue, including through Opportunity Areas.

The EPI suggests that while this may be a good start, there are other areas across the country that are not covered by these where “social mobility is stagnating or even worsening”. And it also highlights that the system continues to fail to meet the needs of certain vulnerable groups, including those with special educational needs and disabilities, those from Gypsy Roma or Traveller communities, and Black Caribbean children.

In addition, recent commentary from the Chief Inspector of Ofsted, Amanda Spielman, raised concerns over schools focusing on exam results at the expense of the curriculum, leading to many disadvantaged children being shut out from acquiring a rich and full knowledge:

“It is a risk to social mobility if pupils miss out on opportunities to study subjects and gain knowledge that could be valuable in subsequent stages of education or in later life.”

It has been suggested that government pressure to improve performance has led to a focus on exam and test results. But Spielman argues that this is a mistake on the part of school leaders as it should “not be taken as read that higher scores for the school always means a better deal for pupils”.

Final thoughts

Clearly, while it shouldn’t be forgotten that progress has been made, a lot more needs to be done if the disadvantage gap is to close any time soon.

As the EPI concluded: “If we carry on at this pace, we will lose at least a further three generations before equality of outcomes is realised through our education system.”


If you enjoyed reading this post, you may also like our previous blogs on education-related topics.

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What state is the Scottish education system in?

by Stacey Dingwall

On Tuesday, the Scottish Government published new statistics on the country’s education system, contained in the evidence report for the National Improvement Framework for Scottish Education. The report outlines progress made against each of the four priorities set by the Scottish Government in January when it first published the Framework:

  • Improvement in attainment, particularly in literacy and numeracy;
  • Closing the attainment gap between the most and least disadvantaged children;
  • Improvement in children and young people’s health and wellbeing;
  • Improvement in employability skills and sustained, positive school leaver destinations for all young people.

The government’s priority

The Scottish Government has previously identified education as its top priority, with First Minister Nicola Sturgeon stating that her actions in this area are what she wishes to be judged on during her time in office.

Unfortunately, these latest statistics did not bring good news for the First Minister. While Education Secretary John Swinney highlighted that the number of teachers in the country had increased overall, he also conceded that “significant improvements” were needed in some areas. These areas include a worsening of the ratio of pupils to teachers in 12 council areas, and a slight increase in class sizes overall.

2015 Pisa results

The progress report came on the heels of the previous week’s bad news: Scotland’s performance in the 2015 Pisa rankings. The country recorded its worst ever results in the OECD survey, with scores for maths, science and reading declining since 2012. Scotland’s 2015 results in these areas were all classified as ‘average’, in contrast to 2000’s results of ‘above average’.

Although Scotland maintained its position within the OECD statistical average, the results indicate that the country is now performing ‘significantly below’ other countries in some areas, including England (science).

Has the Scottish education system got worse?

Reacting to the Pisa results, opposition parties called them evidence of “a decade of educational failure” under the SNP. Keir Bloomer of Reform Scotland and the Commission on School Reform also said that it was “no longer credible to describe Scotland’s education system as world leading”, and suggested there was now an “urgent” case for reform.

This is not something that the Scottish Government has shied away from admitting. As we reported from this year’s Scottish Learning Festival, John Swinney has made it his intention to “declutter’ the Scottish education system, by reducing teachers’ workloads around assessments. A number of actions have either been implemented, or are in the process of being introduced, in response to the OECD’s 2015 review of education policy, practice and leadership in Scotland, which the government commissioned itself. These include the expansion of the Scottish Attainment Challenge, funding from which enabled 63% of the increase in FTE teachers in Scotland last year.

Pisa overemphasis?

Larry Flanagan, general secretary of EIS, Scotland’s largest teaching union, said that it was important not to make any “snap judgements” based on the Pisa results, emphasising the need for analysis of the full data released by the OECD rather than headline findings.

We looked at issues raised around the influence of Pisa results in 2014, when academics and research questioned the system’s reliability and its claim that when schools are given more independence over spending, their schools achieve better academic results. An evaluation of the Pisa methodology published in May this year found that it had a series of limitations including “an inconsistent rationale, opaque sampling, unstable evaluative design, measuring instruments of questionable validity, opportunistic use of scores transformed by standardization, reverential confidence in statistical significance, an absence of substantively significant statistics centered on the magnitudes of effects, a problematic presentation of findings and questionable implications drawn from the findings for educational norms and practice”.

The OECD itself has admitted that “large variation in single country ranking positions is likely” because of the methods it uses.

Going forward

Conceding that the results were not where she wanted Scotland’s education system to be, Nicola Sturgeon maintained, however that the Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) is the “right way forward”. She also highlighted her government’s commitment to acting on the recommendations contained in the OECD’s earlier review of the system, in which the CfE was described in positive terms, with the caveat that the government must be ‘bold and innovative’ in order to achieve its potential. Given the First Minister’s stated determination to improve the education system’s performance, this is advice that would seem logical to follow.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team. If you found this article interesting, you may also like to read our other education articles. 

Scottish Learning Festival 2016: excellence and equity for all

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by Stacey Dingwall

Last Wednesday, I attended the first day of the annual Scottish Learning Festival. Launched in 2000 as Scottish Education and Teaching with Technology (SETT), the two day event run by Education Scotland regularly attracts thousands of visitors from the education landscape in Scotland and beyond.

Promoting excellence and equity for all

The theme of this year’s event was promoting excellence and equity for all through:

  • School leadership and improvement
  • Assessing children’s progress and parental engagement
  • Teacher professionalism
  • Performance information

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has made education the priority for her government, telling education leaders earlier this year that they could “judge” her on the success of her policies to close the attainment gap in Scotland.  Despite improvements in Scottish school standards, an attainment gap persists, with pupils in more affluent areas twice as likely to gain a Higher than their peers from deprived areas. Sturgeon’s priority is to ensure that kids in Scotland grow up with the belief that academic success is achieved through talent and hard work, rather than based on the area in which they live.

Opening keynote: John Swinney

The festival’s opening keynote address was delivered by John Swinney, the recently appointed Education Secretary. Swinney stated his aim to “declutter” Scottish education. This is to be achieved by replacing the current mandatory requirement for unit assessment at National 5 and Higher levels with enhanced course assessment. Swinney explained that the aim of this was to reduce teachers’ workload around assessments, and suggested that teachers must also take additional steps themselves to reduce their workload. In the wake of this announcement, the EIS teaching union agreed to consider suspending their planned industrial action over teacher workloads.

Swinney also launched the inaugural Digital Schools Awards at the festival, which aim to promote, recognise and encourage best practice use of digital technology in primary schools. Prior to the event, the education secretary spoke of the importance of supporting Scotland’s digital sector by developing the skills and confidence of learners, and pointed to evidence that technology use in the classroom can enhance learning and teaching, and lead to improved educational outcomes for pupils.

Improving schools in Scotland: an OECD perspective

The first afternoon session I attended was presented by Chris Graham from the Scottish Government Curriculum Unit, and focused on the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD’s) 2015 review of education policy, practice and leadership in Scotland. Chris explained the background to the review, which was commissioned by the Scottish Government to:

  • Highlight key impacts of the approach taken to developing the curriculum to date
  • Analyse key aspects of education policy and practice in Scotland, and integrate insights from PISA and other evidence from different countries/regions
  • Highlight areas where further change or development could add value to an ongoing programme of educational improvement

The review made 12 recommendations, across the headings of quality and equity in Scottish schools; decision-making and governance for the Curriculum for Excellence (CfE); schooling, teachers and leadership; and assessment, evaluation and the CfE. A particular point that the OECD team made was that they didn’t believe that current activities around equity were as well aligned as they could be, and suggested that more should be done in terms of sharing evidence of ‘what works’ from individual interventions across the board. While the OECD did not specifically evaluate the CfE itself, the team did suggest that a new “narrative” be developed around it in order to clarify its scope – and perhaps even rename it. They were positive about the CfE overall however, but emphasised the need for the government to be bold and innovative in order to achieve its potential.

Chris also highlighted a range of measures that have been implemented since the report was published, some of which were under way when the OECD were carrying out their review. These include the expansion of the Scottish Attainment Challenge to secondary schools, and the launch of the National Improvement Framework and Delivery Plan for Excellence and Equity in Scottish Education. Chris described these developments as relevant to the recommendations made by the OECD team, and sees the next steps to be taken as currently an “open conversation”.

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Inverclyde Attainment Challenge

The final session I attended looked at the experience of Aileymill Primary School in Inverclyde with the Scottish Attainment Challenge. This initiative was launched in February 2015 by the First Minister in order to bring a greater sense of urgency in achieving equity in educational outcomes in Scotland. Aileymill, along with five other schools in the area, was awarded Challenge funding in August last year in an attempt to bridge the gap between pupils from deprived and more affluent areas in Inverclyde.

The session featured presentations from Aileymill’s headteacher Catriona Miller and Marie Pye from Barnardo’s, who worked with the school to provide a dedicated family support worker and implement plans for families who were struggling with issues such as poor attendance. Catriona spoke of the extent of some of the issues facing the pupils in her school, where 70% of the roll falls into the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD) categories 1 and 2.

Two key things that emerged from Catriona and Maria’s presentations were the importance of establishing trust to the success of the partnership between the school and Barnardo’s, and the need to develop a sustainable model to support pupils and their families due to the limited availability of funding. Also key was the relationship-based approach employed, not only to their partnership, but to the support they provide to pupils and their families. It was really inspiring to listen to how much of an impact the funding has made in Aileymill, where parents who had been previously completely disconnected from their child’s education are now engaging with both the school and social work, and there are pupils whose attendance has increased from 23% to 80% within a year.


You can read more about the 2016 Scottish Learning Festival here. Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team.