GCSE learning gap stands at 22.7 months for the most persistently disadvantaged

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
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Disadvantaged students are 18.1 months of learning behind their peers by the time they take their GCSEs – a gap that rises to 22.7 months for those children living in the most persistent poverty, and 29 months for looked after children.


The news this week that the attainment gap at GCSE between disadvantaged students and their peers has stopped closing for the first time in 10 years has caused widespread concern.

What is more, the attainment gap at the end of primary school, which now stands at 9.3 months, has increased for the first time since 2007 – which it is feared may signal a future widening of the gap in secondary education.

What is more, the figures – which have been published in the Education Policy Institute’s (EPI) annual report (Hutchinson et al, 2020) – are based on 2019 data from before the Covid-19 lockdown.

The attainment gap is widely expected to have grown after the coronavirus lockdown and partial school closures between March and July this year.

Disadvantaged pupils are defined in the report as pupils who have been eligible for free school meals (FSM) at any point in the last six years.

The 18.1-month gap is calculated based on pupils’ performance in their English and maths GCSEs and compares with a gap of 19.7 months in 2011. However, this gap in 2015 also stood at 18.1 months, meaning little progress has been made in the last five years.

When taking into account all GCSE subjects, the gap increases to 18.4 months (compared with 20.4 months in 2011 and 19.4 months in 2015).

In terms of subjects, the largest gaps in mainstream GCSE subjects are found in music (20.1 months), PE (17.7), geography (17.7), and maths (17.5). The smallest gaps are found in French (11.5), chemistry (12.4) and German (12.5).

For the first time this year, the annual report also looks at the attainment gap within the FSM cohort. It finds that children living with a high persistence of poverty – defined as those who have been on FSM for at least 80 per cent of their time at school – have a learning gap of 22.7 months for English and maths GCSE (22.9 for all GCSEs). This gap stood at 22.8 months in 2011 (23.5 for all GCSEs).

The English and maths GCSE attainment gap drops to 11.3 months of learning for children living with a low persistence of poverty – defined as those who have been on FSM for up to 20 per cent of their time at school.

However, the report warns that levels of persistent poverty are getting worse. It states: “Since 2015, the high persistence group has grown by five per cent, while the low persistence group shrunk by 18 per cent. This reflects the rise in persistent poverty among disadvantaged pupils over the last few years.”

Elsewhere, the report shows that looked after children are on average 29 months behind other pupils by the time they sit their GCSEs (this is compared to 30 months in 2014). Students with Children Protection Plans are 25.7 months behind, while those classified as Children in Need are 19.6 months behind.

The report states: “It is notable that the looked after group has seen little progress in closing the gap despite its expansion as a proportion of the pupil population.”

The report concludes: “Our findings suggest that an urgent emphasis on closing gaps in education is necessary. They are also a timely reminder that efforts to tackle the social determinants of education, such as poverty and trauma during childhood, are a fundamental to reducing educational inequalities.

“It is widely expected that the Covid-19 pandemic will increase the disadvantage gap significantly. This, combined with the fact that the gap was already beginning to widen prior to the pandemic, suggests that without targeted government action to close the gap there is a risk of undoing decades of progress in tackling educational inequalities.”

Jo Hutchinson, co-author of the report and the EPI’s director of social mobility and vulnerable learners, added: “Our research shows that over the last two years an increasing number of children are living in long term poverty, and since these children are furthest behind in their learning, that is contributing to adverse trends in the national disadvantage gap.

“Our new data uncovers the deep educational impact of family trauma on children with a social worker. Those with a Child Protection Plan, who will have experienced abuse or neglect, face a GCSE gap of more than two years. This group has grown in size and has no direct funding or support in school, and the root causes of their vulnerability have increased since the lockdown. There is now abundant evidence that poverty and social vulnerability require urgent action both in and outside of school.”

Commenting on the report, Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said: “Inadequate government policies and cuts to school funding have raised almost insurmountable barriers to learning for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Every day our members teach children who come to school too hungry to learn or are left without the basic school equipment they need.

“At the start of 2020 a third of children in the UK – 4.2 million children – were trapped in poverty. Research indicates that as the effects of lockdown and recession take hold, a further 200,000 children will be in poverty by Christmas. In the fifth richest country in the world, this is simply shameful.

"If the government is serious about ensuring all pupils receive access to a good quality, equitable education they must put their money where their mouth is and put measures in place to lift pupils out of the grip of poverty and disadvantage.”

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, added: “Children from disadvantaged backgrounds are the victims of a decade of austerity. They have disproportionately suffered from funding cuts not just to education, but to all the wider services that should be there to help them. Successive governments have failed to invest in those who need it the most, and now we see the result.

“Schools were already struggling to provide everything children need before this crisis, damaged as they and other social services have been by a decade of austerity. If schools are to play their part in healing the scars left by Covid-19, be that educational, developmental or emotional, they will absolutely require additional support, funding and resources to do so.”


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