The fault line in our society...

Written by: Geoff Barton | Published:
Geoff Barton, general secretary, Association of School and College Leaders

The attainment gap between rich and poor has become a fault line in our society and there are clear links to poverty and disadvantage – yet this does not appear to be on the to-do list of the current government, says Geoff Barton

In the days before the Hartlepool by-election, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer acknowledged that his party had a mountain to climb if he is to become prime minister.

The size of that mountain and the scale of the challenge ahead was laid bare by the results in Hartlepool, where the Conservatives seized power for the first time in the history of the constituency in its current form.

There was no shortage of views on the Friday morning about where the blame lies for Labour’s catastrophic defeat. But aside from all this sound and fury, what seems certain is that Labour has so far failed to set out a compelling vision of what a government under Sir Keir’s leadership would deliver for Britain.

To be fair, it cannot have been easy to shape such a vision over the past year because the pandemic has made dealing with the immediate future more of a priority than longer term plans.

However, if Labour is to have any chance of seizing power at the next general election, the party must now set out a powerful narrative which distinguishes it as a credible alternative to the Conservatives. And if it is looking for ideas about where to identify policies which really matter to voters then it needs look no further than education.

Last August, the Education Policy Institute think-tank reported that the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and other pupils has stopped closing for the first time in a decade. It found that disadvantaged pupils in England are 18.1 months of learning behind their peers by the time they finish their GCSEs (Hutchinson et al, 2020; SecEd, 2020).

The EPI said: “In last year’s annual report, we modelled that if the trend over the last five years were to continue, it would take over 500 years for the disadvantage gap to be eliminated at secondary level in English and maths.

“This year the data suggests an even more extreme conclusion: the gap is not closing. Over the last five years, our headline measure of the gap at secondary level has not changed. If this were to continue, the gap would never close.”

This is the fault line in our society. The children who are on the wrong side of this gap are less likely to get good higher education qualifications and well-paid jobs, and the same future is likely to await their children too. And so it goes on from one generation to the next.

This isn’t unsolvable. We know that the gap first emerges in the early years of children’s lives and that children from disadvantaged homes may start school already behind their peers. So, we need to put a far greater focus and more investment into providing these children with high-quality early years education.

We know also that schools which serve deprived communities can face very significant challenges, but are then often stigmatised by an accountability system which has got its priorities wrong. So, let’s stop stigmatising these schools, and let’s incentivise staff to teach and work in the most deprived communities. It should be a badge of honour.

And we know that our qualifications system really doesn’t work well for all our children – and specifically the “forgotten third” who leave secondary education at 16 without achieving at least a Grade 4 “standard” pass in GCSE English and maths. We need reform which gives every young person the dignity of a qualification of which they can be proud.

There is more. Children cannot learn effectively if they arrive at school cold and hungry. More must be done to tackle child poverty, to boost care and support for struggling families, and to restore a sense of hope and prosperity to blighted communities.

However, none of the above appears to be on the to-do list of the current government. Its approach to education before the pandemic struck was largely one of managerial supervision of the existing system, and there is no particular sense that it intends to do anything more ambitious post-pandemic.

It is open territory for Labour to reassert itself as a socially progressive party with broad appeal and reconnect with its traditional heartlands. Whichever way you vote, it is good for democracy to have an alternative vision for Britain, and good for education to have a debate about how we can do better for the children and young people who most need our help.

  • Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. Read his previous articles for SecEd, via

Further information & resources

  • Hutchinson et al: Education in England: Annual Report 2020, EPI, August 2020:
  • SecEd: GCSE learning gap stands at 22.7 months for the most persistently disadvantaged, August 2020:


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