The achievement gap between the poorest students and their better-off classmates is as wide now as it was 20 years ago, according to a damning new report that says the coronavirus pandemic is likely to have increased inequalities in education.
The landmark study, based on research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) and funded by the Nuffield Foundation, found that disadvantaged pupils start school behind their more affluent peers, and those inequalities persist throughout their years. school and beyond, eventually. having an impact on earnings.
The authors say there is overwhelming evidence that the education system in England leaves too many young people behind and, despite decades of policy focus, there has been little or no change in the gaps in educational achievement between children from different backgrounds.
The report said: “Despite decades of political attention, there has been virtually no change in the ‘disadvantage gap’ in GCSE achievement over the last 20 years. While GCSE achievement has been increasing over time, 16-year-olds who are eligible for free school meals are still around 27 percentage points less likely to achieve good GCSEs than their less disadvantaged peers.
At the beginning of their educational journey, only 57% of English students eligible for free school meals were at a good level of development at the end of reception in 2019, compared to 74% of their better-off peers, the report says.
Failure is “cooked” at an early age, say the authors. Fewer than half of disadvantaged children reached expected levels of achievement by the end of primary school, compared to nearly 70% of their better-off peers. Of those who achieve the expected level, only 40% of disadvantaged students achieve good GCSEs in English and mathematics, compared to 60% of better-off students.
Perhaps the biggest failure of the education system, the report suggests, is that for those who leave school with poor GCSEs, there is no clear path and no ‘second chance’, leaving millions disadvantaged throughout their lives.
The report finds that the relationship between family background and achievement is not limited to the poorest, but that educational performance improves as family income increases. Just over 10% of young people from middle-income families achieved at least an A or A* grade at GCSE, compared with a third of students from the wealthiest tenth of families.
These inequalities lead to large gaps in earnings, says the report, noting that by age 40, the average UK employee with a degree earns twice as much as someone qualified at GCSE level or below.
“These challenges will become more acute,” the report concludes. “The Covid-19 pandemic has put the education system under enormous strain, with significant learning loss across the board and a huge increase in educational inequalities.
“Perhaps even more damaging in the long term will be the social, emotional and behavioral impacts of missing out on classroom learning and formative experiences during closures.”
Imran Tahir, IFS Research Economist and author of the report, said: “We cannot expect the education system to overcome all the differences between children from different family backgrounds. But the English system could do much better.
“If the government is going to fulfill its mission that 90% of students reach the expected level when they finish primary school [as stated in its recent schools white paper]it needs to prioritize the education system and especially the disadvantaged students within it.”
Bridget Phillipson, the shadow education secretary, said: “Over 12 years of Conservative governments have utterly failed to address the inequalities in the education system, which are letting our children down and holding back the opportunities and life chances of children. youths.
“200,000 primary school children don’t have access to a good or outstanding school, teachers are leaving our schools in record numbers, GCSE grades among children receiving free school meals are regressing. The Tories are playing with the school structures, without improving the results of the children”.
Geoff Barton, General Secretary of the Association of School and University Leaders, added: “Government policy is mired in meaningless targets, empty rhetoric and dismal levels of funding.
“We need to see investments in early years education, better support for schools facing the greatest challenges, funding for schools and post-16 education that matches the level of need, and a rethink of qualifications and the curriculum to work well for everyone. apprentices.”
A spokesperson for the Department for Education said: “Since 2011, we have reduced the achievement gap between disadvantaged students and their peers at all stages of education up to the pandemic, and recent figures show that a record proportion of the most disadvantaged students they are progressing to higher levels. education.
“As part of our work to improve opportunities for all, we have invested almost £5 billion to help young people recover from the impact of the pandemic, with more than 2 million tutoring courses now started by the students who love them most. they need, along with an ambitious goal. so that 90% of children finish primary school with the expected standard in reading, writing and mathematics by 2030”.