The poverty gaps persist

Written by: Dr Mary Bousted | Published:
Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary, National Education Union

The shameful gulf in education provision between the UK’s advantaged and disadvantaged students is laid bare by the PISA findings, says Dr Mary Bousted

Beyond the crude rankings of countries in the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) international league tables (OECD, 2019), there lies a wealth of interesting data which give insight into the education systems of more than 70 countries.

One of the most interesting, for the UK, is that there is a wider than international average gap between high and low performing students. This gap is strongly linked to levels of parental income.

While nearly a quarter of the UK’s advantaged students perform at the highest level in reading, only five per cent of disadvantaged students achieve that same level. This is a highly significant difference in the progress made by these two groups of young people by the age of 15.

PISA also provides some information about possible cause of this gap: UK students from different backgrounds disproportionately go to different schools. The analysis reveals that 30 per cent of advantaged students are taught in schools where learning is hindered by staffing problems, whereas only 13 per cent of advantaged students are enrolled at a school with similar difficulties.

Furthermore, a disproportionately large percentage of beginning teachers work in schools in deprived areas educating pupils who live in poverty.

So, the schools which are the most challenging to teach in, are staffed by teachers who have immense amounts of drive and goodwill, but the least experience to deal with the daily challenges. This may be one of the reasons why a third of teachers leave the profession within five years of qualifying (DfE, 2019).

There is a picture emerging here. The poorest pupils go to schools which have the fewest qualified teachers with the least experience.

Their early disadvantage in life is not compensated but compounded by the UK’s education systems.

The Education Policy Institute (Andrews et al, 2016) has calculated that 40 per cent of the achievement gap between advantaged and disadvantaged pupils emerges before they start school. Young people who live in poverty find their lives blighted by inadequate housing where they find it difficult, or impossible, to find a warm, safe space to study. For many of these children, food insecurity and hunger is a regular occurrence.

A recent survey of our members found that 62 per cent have witnessed an increase in child poverty in their school. A third said that they had bought food for pupils who could not afford it (SecEd, 2019).

The most effective way to improve our education system is to narrow the attainment gap between poor children and their richer peers. Schools cannot, alone, resist the disastrous effects of poverty. The most effective way to improve UK standards of education is to reverse the rising levels of child poverty which will, on current projections (Hood & Waters, 2017) rise to more than 5.2 million by 2022. This is, I am afraid, a national disgrace.

  • Dr Mary Bousted is the joint general secretary of the National Education Union.

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