Slow progress in closing the attainment gap

A new report from the Education Policy Institute has examined the progress made in closing the gap in attainment between disadvantaged pupils in the UK (those eligible for Pupil Premium) and their peers. The analysis considers how that gap varies across the country and how it has changed since 2007.

While the report does find that the gap has closed slightly, progress is slow. Between 2007 and 2016, the gap by the end of primary school only narrowed by 2.8 months. Over the same period, the gap by the end of secondary school narrowed by 3 months. However, last year, disadvantaged pupils were still 19 months behind their peers by the time they took their GCSEs, meaning that on average a disadvantaged pupil falls two months behind their peers for each year of secondary school. The situation is worse for the most persistently disadvantaged pupils (those who have been eligible for free school meals for at least 80 per cent of their time in school). Over the last decade, the attainment gap for this group has actually widened slightly by 0.3 months. In 2016 the most disadvantaged pupils were on average over two full years of learning behind their peers by the end of secondary school.

The report also finds that some regions of the UK are doing worse than others when it comes to closing the gap. The disadvantage gap is generally smaller in London, the south and the east of England, at around 16 to 18 months. Successful areas in London include Hackney, Islington, Newham and Barnet, where disadvantaged pupils are around eight months behind. The Isle of Wight has the largest gap – pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds are on average 29 months behind their peers by the end of secondary school.

Source: Closing the gap? Trends in educational attainment and disadvantage (August 2017), Education Policy Institute

“Invisible” pupils not considered for Pupil Premium

In England, Pupil Premium (PP) funding is provided for pupils who, on the national school census return (collected termly since 2006/07), are recorded as having been eligible for Free School Meals (FSM) at any point during the previous six years (Ever 6). However, new research, published by FFT Education, has identified an “invisible group” of pupils, whose attainment and progress may also have been negatively affected by disadvantage but who do not qualify for PP funding.

The report’s author examined the attainment and progress of pupils who fall outside Ever 6, but who had qualified for FSM at an earlier time. This is a substantial number of pupils. In 2013 the Year 11 cohort in England included over 38,000 pupils who had received FSM at some point, but not in the previous six years. He found that the attainment and progress of this “invisible group” was much lower than those who have never received FSM. Other findings included that the proportion of time for which a pupil is FSM while at school is likely to be the best indicator of the potential impact of disadvantage upon attainment and progress.

The report makes a number of recommendations, including considering basing the PP on FSM “ever” (rather than Ever 6), and taking into account the amount of time an individual pupil has qualified for FSM. Independently of this, schools could consider whether pupils who have previously been FSM, but not in the previous six years, are in need of additional support.

Source: Pupil Premium and the Invisible Group (2014) FFT Education.

How are schools and colleges raising aspirations?

New research commissioned by the Department for Education has reviewed the strategies used by schools and colleges to raise the aspirations of high-achieving disadvantaged pupils to pursue higher education. It comprised a nationally representative telephone survey of 400 schools and 100 FE and sixth-form colleges, and ten case studies drawn from institutions identified as exemplifying good practice.

Aspiration-raising activities with high-achieving disadvantaged pupils were reported in 50% of 11-16 schools, 39% of 11-18 schools, and 40% of colleges, although nearly all reported at least some activities to raise aspirations more generally. 32% were using Pupil Premium funding specifically to raise aspirations among disadvantaged pupils, and 75% were using it to fund aspiration-raising activities with all pupils. However, concerns were raised that Pupil Premium funding did not adequately replace the support offered by the previous Aim Higher programme.

The report identified key issues that aspiration-raising activities needed to address. These included financial concerns; feeling that higher education was not “for them”; attainment levels; and pupils favouring other opportunities such as work or vocational qualifications. However, the findings challenged the assumption that parents or family constitute a significant barrier to higher education.

Recommendations for best practice include a whole institution culture of raising aspirations; a combination of universal and targeted approaches; staff with specific responsibility for higher education access; early intervention from KS3 onwards; information and guidance on financial issues for both pupils and parents at an early stage; immersive, subsidised, university experiences; and systematic monitoring of applications and destinations.

Source: School and College-level Strategies to Raise Aspirations of High-achieving Disadvantaged Pupils to Pursue Higher Education Investigation: Research report (2014), Department for Education.

Pupil Premium is funding wide range of interventions

The Department for Education has published the findings of an independent evaluation of the Pupil Premium, which aims to close the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers. The funding was worth £623 per pupil in the 2012/13 school year, with approximately 27% of pupils eligible. This report is based on a survey of schools during the Autumn term of 2012 to collect quantitative information and financial data, case studies, and analysis of the National Pupil Database.

It is too early to measure impact, but the report gives an overview of how the funding is being used. Over 60% of schools surveyed reported reduced overall budgets between 2010-11 and 2011-12. Over 90% of schools surveyed had been focused on supporting disadvantaged pupils before the introduction of the Pupil Premium. Over 80% reported that the Pupil Premium alone was not enough to fund this support, and many pooled the funding with other budgets. Since its introduction about 70% of schools had increased such expenditure.

All schools were offering a wide range of support to help pupils they considered to be disadvantaged. The biggest areas of expenditure focused on learning in the curriculum, and social, emotional, and behavioural support. Of 11 types of support listed, primary schools offered 8 on average, and secondary schools 9.3. The four most highly used (reported by over 90% of both primaries and secondaries) were additional support both inside and outside the classroom, additional staff, and curriculum-related school trips. The range of support has been built up over time, not introduced since Pupil Premium funding began. Over 45% of schools based their decisions on how to spend funding on academic research, and almost all schools surveyed (95% or more) said they were monitoring the impact.

Source: Evaluation of Pupil Premium: Research Report (2013), Department for Education.

Past experience matters most to schools, but research evidence is catching up

The Sutton Trust submitted two questions to NFER’s latest Teacher Voice Omnibus Survey, and the responses have been analysed and published in a new report. One question asked respondents to identify how their school decided which approaches and programmes to adopt to improve pupil learning. The most popular response was that their school used past experience to make these decisions, with 61% of primary teachers and 49% of secondary teachers choosing this option.

However, schools are increasingly using evidence to inform decision-making – 43% of primary teachers and 40% of secondary teachers said that their school made decisions by considering research evidence on the impact of different approaches. This figure was up from 36% in the same survey last year.

The respondents were also asked how the Pupil Premium was spent in their schools. Early intervention schemes ranked most highly as the spending priority in all schools (23%). This was followed by additional teaching assistants and more one-to-one tuition at primary level, and more one-to-one tuition at secondary level. However, 30% of respondents did not know what the main priority was in their school.

Source: NFER Teacher Voice Omnibus March 2013 Survey: Spending Priorities for the Pupil Premium (2013), NFER.

Closing the attainment gap in England’s secondary schools

School improvement policies will not be enough to close the attainment gap between rich and poor pupils in England’s secondary schools, concludes a report from the Institute for Public Policy Research. Pupils from deprived areas are about as likely to attend a school rated ‘satisfactory’ or ‘inadequate’ as wealthier pupils are likely to attend a school rated ‘outstanding’; however, findings of the report show that even if every pupil in the country attended an outstanding school, the attainment gap between the poorest and wealthiest pupils would only be cut by a fifth. The report also looks at what impact the pupil premium and other targeted interventions have on closing the attainment gap, and finds that:

  • Targeting interventions towards poorer pupils helps to raise achievement in the poorest areas of the country, but does not help to reduce the attainment gap in the rest of the country.
  • Interventions work best if they focus on tackling the variations in achievement within each school, and are targeted at all pupils who are falling behind regardless of their socioeconomic background.
  • Interventions at secondary school cannot do all of the work in narrowing the attainment gap. The biggest effects are achieved when interventions start in early years and primary school and are continued into secondary school.

Source: Closing the attainment gap in England’s secondary schools (2012) Institute for Public Policy Research