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

skills gap

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.


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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Free school meals or breakfast clubs? Child hunger in England

by Stacey Dingwall

For a lot of us, the removal of the turkey twizzler was the biggest school meals-related political upset of the last decade. However, during the recent election campaign another, more serious, row emerged: over the provision of universal free school meals to English children in Reception through to Year 2.

Manifesto proposals

The proposal to scrap the policy introduced by the coalition government in 2014 was one of the Conservative manifesto proposals that didn’t make it to the Queen’s Speech. Schools minister Nick Gibb confirmed that the policy had been ditched at the start of this month, stating that existing provision would be retained following the government having “carefully listened” to parents.

In their manifesto, the Labour party promised to extend universal provision to all primary school aged children, to be funded by introducing VAT on private school fees.

Is FSM for all viable?

Financially, Labour’s proposal was deemed to be viable, in theory at least. Charging VAT on private school fees was calculated to be worth just over £1.5bn a year, provided all pupils were paying a full fee. The IFS have suggested that extending provision to all primary pupils would cost in the region of £950m annually.

In 2012 the IFS, in partnership with NatCen, carried out an evaluation of a pilot study which offered free school meals to all Year 6 pupils in Newham and Durham. The evaluation found that the pupils made around two months’ additional progress over a two-year period compared to similar children in other areas, although it wasn’t able to definitively identify how this progress was made – i.e. it was unable to conclude that the provision of free school meals was the reason.

Breakfast clubs

Discussing the evaluation findings within the context of the 2017 manifesto proposals, the IFS highlighted findings from other research they’ve carried out into breakfast clubs.  This is something we’ve discussed before on the blog: our 2015 post highlighted a range of evidence that school breakfast clubs have a positive impact on children’s academic performance. The IFS study looked at one of the schemes, Magic Breakfast, and found that improvements in pupil performance were “likely to be the result of the content or context of the school breakfasts”.

The Conservative manifesto pledged to provide free breakfasts in place of universal free lunch provision. This was dismissed as “not comparable” by parents however, and described by some in the education sector as merely a cost-cutting exercise (that had not in fact been costed correctly) rather than a drive to boost attainment.

Child hunger in 2017

The reason why so many were critical of the proposal to remove the universal entitlement to free school meals is that for some children, it’s the only nourishment they’ll receive all day. Just because a child is entitled to a free lunch doesn’t mean they’ll claim it – a range of evidence has highlighted the stigma children can be exposed to if meals aren’t free for all. Extending provision to all has been found to be the best way of helping those who need it most, rather than singling them out.

In 2017, it’s shameful that children in a developed country are still suffering from hunger. As new figures from the Trussell Trust reveal that the already shocking levels of reliance on foodbanks increases even more during school holidays, it’s clear that any policy which risks making the situation for already vulnerable children even worse needs to be abandoned.

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. 

Is the total academisation of schools in England a good idea?

by Stacey Dingwall

In one of the major announcements made as part of last week’s Budget, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, declared that all schools in England must become academies by 2020, or at least have official plans to do so by 2022. Any schools who fail to comply with this timetable will be forced to do so under new powers adopted by the government.

The policy, Osborne claimed, would “set schools free from local bureaucracy” and is part of his government’s plan to “make sure that every child gets the best start in life”. As the plan was announced, Education Secretary Nicky Morgan tweeted that “Full academisation will empower great teachers & leaders giving them autonomy and accountability to let their schools succeed”. Writing in a white paper published the following day, her department stated that removing schools from local authority control would help to “empower local communities, putting children and parents first and clearly defining the role of local government”.

More academies – the reaction

Reactions to the announcement were broadly negative, with the reform attracting criticism from local authorities, the shadow education secretary, unions, teachers, think tanks and parents, amongst others. Alongside Conor Ryan, Director of Research at the Sutton Trust, many pointed towards the fact that limited evidence exists of academies’ ability to improve the attainment levels of disadvantaged pupils, which was their original purpose. A loss of accountability to parents was also raised as a concern by some, including the Local Government Association, who stated that they opposed the handing over of “significant” powers in areas – including the curriculum – to “unelected civil servants”.

It was also noted that the government has decided to go ahead with the reform despite a recent letter to Morgan from Sir Michael Wilshaw, the Chief Inspector of Schools in England and head of Ofsted, which described the results of recent HMI inspections of academies as “worrying”. Wilshaw also wrote that many of the inspected multi-academy trusts displayed the same weaknesses as the worst performing local education authorities, and that the large salaries paid to the chief executives of these trusts was a “poor use of public money”.

Ongoing concerns

The Budget announcement comes almost two years after we first looked at issues with the academies programme on the blog. At that time, we reported on concerns that money which could be spent on addressing the shortage of school places in London was instead being used to open academies in areas where there was no urgent need for more places.

International experience: America and the Netherlands

After facing similar criticism to the English programme of failing to improve the attainment of poorer pupils, some are suggesting that the American charter schools programme, which heavily influenced the creation of the academies programme, is in decline. The Mayor of New York, Bill de Blasio, continues to be a vocal opponent of the movement, despite facing legal challenges over his refusal to guarantee space to new and expanding charter schools.

Speaking at a town hall meeting in South Carolina in November 2015, former charter supporter and potential Democrat presidential nominee Hillary Clinton voiced her opinion that charter schools do not engage with the “hardest-to-reach” kids, or if they do, “they don’t keep them”.

Writing for the Institute of Education, University College London blog, Toby Greany and Melanie Ehren considered the experience of the Netherlands, a country whose schools system has higher rates of autonomy than England. Two issues experienced by the Dutch Schools Boards, which were set up to oversee groups of primary schools, are highlighted as particularly relevant for England:

  1. Some Boards have been placed into special financial measures due to their failure to correctly predict their pupil numbers; this, it is argued, could befall academies in England who cover more than one local authority area.
  2. Due to limited engagement with teaching staff and parents, the Boards have not managed to fully embed themselves as legitimate in the eyes of society.

Evidence update

Since our 2014 blog, both the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) and Centre for Economic Performance (CEP) have published new evidence on academies, focusing on their impact on pupil attainment. In their May 2015 review of available evidence, the NFER noted several difficulties in evaluating the performance of academies due to several gaps in the evidence. The review concluded that while there is some evidence to suggest that sponsored secondary academies have had a positive impact on attainment, no significant difference in progress could be found between converter academies and similar non-academy schools. In addition, no conclusive evidence was found of the impact of academisation on primary pupils’ attainment.

In a think piece published alongside the evidence review, the NFER concluded that further expansion of the academies programme by the government would require the following factors to justify it:

  • a clearly articulated theory of change
  • the right evidence
  • evaluation
  • sufficient capacity
  • accountability

Given the reaction to the Budget’s announcement, it can be assumed that most are of the opinion that the government has not yet managed to provide sufficient justification for its decision.

Further reading from our blog on the English education system:

Government’s free schools programme comes under fire again

free school

By Stacey Dingwall

The government’s already controversial free schools programme in England ran into trouble again this week, with the publication of an Ofsted inspection report on Greenwich Free School which found that “too few students make good progress across the different subjects taught in the school”, alongside Labour Party analysis which suggests that 70% of the schools are still not full two years after opening. Continue reading