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

Best schools in England continue to be highly socially selective

A report published by the Sutton Trust reveals that 85% of England’s top comprehensive schools are more socially selective than the average state school. However, schools where pupils make the most progress are much less so.

The report looks at the social composition of England’s top 500 comprehensive schools, based on GCSE attainment, and finds that the top-performing schools take just 9.4% of pupils eligible for Free School Meals (FSM), which is just over half the rate of the average comprehensive (17.2%). About half of this gap is due to the location of high-attaining schools in catchment areas with lower numbers of disadvantaged pupils, but the rest is due to social selection in admissions occurring even within those neighbourhoods.

Among the best schools measured by the Department for Education’s new ‘Progress 8’ measure, which focuses on gains, Carl Cullinane and colleagues find that FSM rates are much closer to the national average (15.2%), and that they are less socially selective, with a third of these schools admitting more FSM pupils than their catchment area.

There are indications of improvement in the numbers of disadvantaged pupils attending top schools, with the average 9.4% FSM rate up from 7.6% in 2013. In that year, 57% of the best schools had FSM rates lower than six per cent, but the number below that mark has fallen to 39%.

Source:  Selective comprehensives 2017: Admissions to high-attaining non-selective schools for disadvantaged pupils (March 2017) The Sutton Trust

Elite education linked to top jobs

A new report from the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission has analysed the background of 4,000 leaders in politics, business, the media, and other aspects of public life.
In the UK, 7% of pupils attend independent schools. The research shows that a disproportionate number of these pupils go on to fill top jobs, including 71% of senior judges, 33% of MPs, 36% of the Cabinet, 45% of public body chairs, and 43% of newspaper columnists.

The research presents a similar picture in terms of those adults who graduated from Oxbridge. Although this figure is less than 1% of the UK adult population, alumni of these universities make up 75% of senior judges, 24% of MPs, 59% of the Cabinet, 44% of public body chairs, and 47% of newspaper columnists.

Although the report acknowledges that many talented people go to independent schools, the authors argue that certain professions should be more representative of the public for reasons of legitimacy. The authors also conclude that a narrow elite suggests serious limits on adult social mobility, and that the sheer scale of the dominance of certain backgrounds raises questions about the degree to which the composition of the elite reflects merit.

Source: Elitist Britain (2014), Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission.

Intergenerational mobility on the up

A new working paper from the Institute of Education explores education and intergenerational mobility. Put simply, do those from the poorer or richer families have the same chance of ending up well-off, and has this situation changed in the decades since the 1950s?

Using data which measures educational inequality for different cohorts at different points in the education system, the authors conclude that the picture has improved for cohorts born after 1980, with absolute improvements in educational attainment closing gaps by family background at several important education milestones.

They found that from the late 1980s to the early 1990s, there has been a reduction in educational inequality at Key Stage 4, a reduction in educational inequality in higher education participation for the youngest cohorts to have reached this stage, and for those born in the late 1990s, this reduction in educational inequality has continued and can be observed in their Key Stage 2 test scores at age 11. They note that this coincides with increased public educational investment, a prescriptive focus on standards, and increasing use of performance tables from the mid-1990s.

However, they say there is little evidence that these improvements have reduced inequality at the highest levels of attainment. If the highest qualifications matter in obtaining the most lucrative jobs, then these findings cast doubt on the idea that a standards agenda alone can encourage mobility.

Source: Education and Intergenerational Mobility: Help or Hindrance? (2014), Institute of Education.

Studying core subjects linked to social mobility

A new article in the British Journal of Sociology of Education looks at how school curriculum content shapes individuals’ chances of social mobility. Using data from the National Child Development Study (NCDS), an ongoing longitudinal study of all those born in England, Scotland, and Wales in one week in 1958, the article finds that curriculum differences reproduce social inequalities and affect individuals’ chances of social mobility.

The people followed by the NCDS study attended secondary school at a time when selective and comprehensive schools co-existed in the British school system. The author found that all or most of the advantage associated with attendance at selective schools was accounted for by the curriculum studied there, even taking into account the socio-economic status of the individual when they were born and individual ability.

The article concludes that core subjects such as languages, English, mathematics, and science were important for individuals’ long-term occupational opportunities, although it noted that it was not possible to say whether this was due to their “higher status” or to the skills that pupils studying those subjects developed. The author says that the findings support the need to focus current discussion about effective teaching on curricular content and inclusive methods of teaching this content.

Source: The Role of the School Curriculum in Social Mobility (2013), British Journal of Sociology of Education, 34(5).

UK disappoints on social mobility

A report by the Sutton Trust, which compared social mobility in several countries, found that the UK performs poorly.

The key findings of the report were that:

  • Gaps in school readiness in England between disadvantaged children and their counterparts were wider than in similar countries, such as Canada and Australia, but narrower than the United States.
  • Formal preschool education can have lasting effects in reducing the educational gap between high and low income children.
  • Disparities in early child outcomes persist into adolescence.
  • Unlike other countries, the achievement gap in England actually widens in secondary school.
  • None of the countries in the study reduce the disparity as children age.

The report concludes that addressing the social stratification in secondary schools remains one of the key challenges for improving social mobility in the UK.

Source: Latest research report: what prospects for mobility in the UK? A cross-national study of educational inequalities and their implications for future education and earnings mobility (2011), Sutton Trust