While deprived pupils are more likely to reach expected attainment levels today than in the 1960s, they are still no closer to achieving the qualifications that will give them a competitive advantage in today’s labour market.
Researchers have found that despite progress in closing the attainment gap, the likelihood of disadvantaged students being among the high achievers has remained “consistently low” for the past 50 years.
They argue that if we are to tackle the social mobility crisis, more “drastic action” might be required, such as a “dramatic extension of the Pupil Premium”, to help disadvantaged pupils to achieve above the average.
Researchers from the Institute of Education in London and the University of Surrey analysed information on the educational attainment of English children born between 1958 and 2000.
The paper, Education and Intergenerational Mobility: Help or hindrance?, was presented at an education policy and social mobility seminar at the London School of Economics last week.
It finds that educational opportunities for all children grew “dramatically” in the second half of the 20th century.
Less than 14 per cent of pupils born in 1958 got the equivalent of at least one A level, compared with almost 50 per cent of those born in 1990. Furthermore, the proportion of children who go on to university has risen from 10 per cent of those born in 1958 to 34 per cent of those born in 1991.
The attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers has also narrowed over time as the attainment of the most deprived children has risen at a faster rate than that of students from the richest families.
However, least deprived children remain twice as likely as the most deprived to achieve A* to B grades in three or more A level subjects that “appeal to universities”, such as English, maths and the sciences.
Indeed, the most disadvantaged pupils continue to be 10 times less likely to attend elite universities and four times less likely to gain a post-graduate degree by their mid-30s.
The paper states: “There is little evidence that these improvements (in the attainment of deprived students) have reduced inequality at the highest levels of attainment.
“This has important implications. If it is the highest qualifications which matter in obtaining the most lucrative labour market opportunities then these findings cast doubt on the idea that a standards agenda alone can encourage mobility.
“It would seem that government must set itself more challenging targets if social mobility is to be promoted in a society where educational aspirations are constantly expanding.”
The paper suggests that action is needed at secondary level with a possible “extension of existing targets to focus on higher attainment levels in schools”. It also highlights “large gaps” in the information and guidance offered in schools regarding subject choices at key stages 4 and 5.
It adds: “Given the weight that both universities and employers place on choosing the ‘right route’, it is paramount that there is more consistency in the guidance offered across all schools.
“Of course, targets and advice will not solve all the underlying differences in resources which enable more privileged children to consistently outperform their peers. It may well be that a reversal of education inequalities at all stages requires a more radical solution such as a dramatic extension of the Pupil Premium.
“The discussion continues over the impact of policies to encourage school diversification on social mobility.”
The paper also highlights the 20 per cent of students who fail to meet the targets at key stage 2 and at GCSE. It adds: “The target culture has tended to exclude those children from the general progress.
“It is doubtless the case that school standards have improved; but not for everyone, and perhaps, not as much as they could have. Substantial improvements in social mobility might require more drastic action.”
Dr Lindsey Macmillan, co-author of the study, said: “The good news is that there are more disadvantaged pupils performing at the expected level today than there were in the 1960s.
“But what matters for labour market performance – and therefore social mobility – is how much education a person has compared to the competitors. Our findings indicate that policies focused primarily on reaching average attainment might not be as effective in improving social mobility as we hoped.”
The research forms part of the Social Policy in a Cold Climate programme of work based at the Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion at the London School of Economics and funded by Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the Nuffield Foundation and Trust for London.
To download the report, visit http://repec.ioe.ac.uk/REPEc/pdf/qsswp1401.pdf