The Education Policy Institute (EPI) has published the first instalment of its Annual Report on the state of education in England, focusing on the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers up to the end of secondary school.
Nationally, the gap between poorer pupils and their peers continued to widen in 2022, but EPI finds startling new trends, affecting the youngest children and those with special educational needs. You can read the full report below.
Following widespread pandemic disruption during 2020 and 2021, 2022 saw the return of summer exams. During the pandemic years, pupils’ grades were awarded using alternative processes known as centre assessed grades (CAGs) and teacher assessed grades (TAGs), whilst statutory assessments were cancelled altogether at earlier key stages. As part of the transition back to exams in 2022, adaptations were made to exams and overall results were set broadly at a mid-point between (the higher grades of) 2021 and 2019, with 2022 marking a staging post back to pre-pandemic grading.1
Although the immediate disruption of the pandemic on learning and assessments has passed, this analysis considers the longer-lasting impacts of the pandemic on attainment gaps for cohorts aged 5, 11 and 16 in 2022. We do this at a national level for key characteristics relating to disadvantage (including those in long-term poverty), special educational needs and disabilities, and ethnicity. In our next release later this year, we will additionally include pupils with English as an additional language, learners aged 16-19, and sub-national disadvantage gaps across all age groups.
Given the unprecedented change in the way results were awarded in 2020 and 2021, we compare 2022 results with those of 2019 when exams were last sat.
Pupils’ attainment outcomes continue to be affected in the aftermath of the pandemic, and disproportionately so for poorer pupils, with wider disadvantage gaps in 2022 than in 2019. Even before the pandemic struck, the sustained long-term progress in closing gaps for disadvantaged pupils had begun to stall. Without a more concerted policy effort, it may take at least another decade to return to even 2019 levels of inequality.2 Meanwhile persistently disadvantaged pupils, those eligible for free school meals for at least 80 per cent of their time at school, are at an even higher risk of sustained levels of low attainment.
- At age 5, disadvantaged pupils were already 4.8 months behind their peers in 2022, a wider gap than in 2019 (4.2 months) and its highest level since 2014 (when it was 4.9 months).
- By the end of primary school (key stage 2), the disadvantage gap was 10.3 months – one month wider than in 2019 and higher than its 2012 level. This has reversed a sustained period of decreasing inequalities between 2011 and 2018.
- By the end of secondary school (key stage 4), disadvantaged pupils were over 18.8 months behind their peers. Similar to earlier phases, this gap has widened since 2019 (by 0.7 months) to reach its highest level since 2012.
- Children with a high persistence of poverty were around one year (12.2 months) behind their non-disadvantaged peers by the end of primary school and almost two years (22.7 months) behind by the end of secondary school. And counter to the trend for all disadvantaged pupils, whilst these gaps have not worsened since 2019, there has been no progress in reducing inequalities for those in long-term poverty prior to the pandemic.
- When we adjust this persistent disadvantage gap to account for changes in the composition of those eligible for free school meals (due to Universal Credit ‘transitional protections’), there is some evidence that underlying attainment gaps for persistently disadvantaged pupils have widened since 2019.
Children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) are significantly educationally disadvantaged and have some of the largest attainment gaps. The impact of the pandemic has been mixed for SEND learners depending on their age and level of need. Over the last decade or so, it is clear that there has been better progress in gap-narrowing for older pupils than for those starting school, as well as for those with less significant needs.
- Among reception-aged pupils: those with an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP) had a gap of 19.7 months in 2022 and among those receiving SEN Support, the gap was over one year (12.4 months). These gaps have flatlined and widened respectively during the pandemic and, unlike for later phases, they have also widened since the start of the series in 2013.
- Among pupils at the end of key stage 2: those with an EHCP were 28.3 months behind their peers, while those receiving SEN Support were 18.1 months behind. These gaps have narrowed overall since 2011 but with slower progress in recent years – and for the EHCP group, progress has gone into reverse, with this gap widening since 2016, including during the pandemic period.
- Among pupils at the end of key stage 4: those with an EHCP were well over three years (40.7 months) behind their peers, while those receiving SEN Support were almost two years (23.0 months) behind. Both gaps have narrowed over the course of the pandemic, continuing the longer-term trend of gap-narrowing since 2011 – indeed the gap among pupils aged 16 receiving SEN Support was almost six months smaller than in 2011.
Attainment varies significantly between ethnic groups and many ethnic groups improve their position relative to White British pupils – the largest ethnic group – as they progress through schooling. The attainment of White British pupils has also declined relative to other ethnic groups in the wake of the pandemic. Between 2019 and 2022, higher-attaining ethnic groups have generally pulled further away from White British pupils across education phases, whilst pupils from lower-attaining ethnic groups have generally narrowed the gap – with the exception of White and Black Caribbean pupils.
- At age 5, only four ethnic groups were ahead of White British pupils in 2022: Chinese, White Irish, White and Asian, and Indian pupils. These gaps are small at under two months, though have generally widened since 2019.
- The lowest attaining ethnic groups at age 5 were Gypsy Roma pupils (who were 8.6 months behind White British pupils in 2022) and Irish Traveller pupils (7.9 months behind). These gaps are similar to, or smaller than, their 2019 levels.
- By the end of primary school, Chinese pupils were 10.7 months ahead of White British pupils and Indian pupils 8.8 months ahead.
- The lowest attaining groups at the end of primary school remained Gypsy Roma (19.2 months behind White British pupils in 2022) and Irish Traveller pupils (18.2 months behind). Black Caribbean and White and Black Caribbean pupils were the next lowest attaining groups, each around four months behind White British pupils. This marks a considerable widening of the gap since the beginning of primary school (when they were 1.8 and 1.1 months behind respectively).
- Between 2019 and 2022, most ethnic groups narrowed the gap relative to White British pupils at the end of key stage 2, except for White and Black Caribbean and Irish Traveller pupils whose gaps both widened.
- By the end of secondary school, Chinese pupils were a full two years (24.1 months) ahead of White British pupils whilst Gypsy Roma pupils were over 2.5 years (31.4 months) behind.
- Between 2019 and 2022, higher-attaining ethnic groups at GCSE have pulled further away from White British pupils and lower-attaining groups have generally narrowed the gap during 2019-2022, with the exception of White and Black Caribbean pupils.
Conclusions and policy recommendations
The pandemic continues to cast a long shadow over the attainment of children whose educational experiences were disrupted several years earlier or, in the case of reception children, during their earliest years at home. However, this shadow was not cast equally across all groups of children, with some of the country’s most vulnerable children falling further behind their peers since 2019.
But educational inequalities existed prior to the pandemic. In many cases the patterns of the last few years continue a long-term trend where progress in gap-narrowing had ground to a halt – or even started to reverse. With the pandemic generally exacerbating these trends, policymakers now face an even greater challenge that has concerning implications for social mobility in England.
Yet widening attainment gaps do not have to be inevitable, demonstrated by the generally good progress in reducing attainment gaps during the earlier period of 2011-2015, as well as the rapid catch-up achieved by some minority groups as they progress through their schooling.
Our key recommendations for policymakers are as follows:
- The Department for Education (DfE) should publish a strategy setting out how it will reduce the disadvantage gap in the wake of the pandemic. This strategy should clarify the government’s level of ambition regarding educational inequalities, should assess the effectiveness of existing policies aimed at reducing disadvantage, and should set out a pathway to implementation based on the best available evidence.
- There is also an urgent need for a cross-government child poverty strategy which recognises that the social determinants of educational inequalities – such as poverty, housing, healthcare, transport and many other aspects of daily life – cannot be addressed by schools in isolation or even any one government department.
- There should be higher levels of funding for disadvantage, which is then weighted more heavily towards persistently disadvantaged pupils. These pupils are now almost two years behind non-disadvantaged pupils, and four additional months behind the wider group of all disadvantaged pupils, by the time they take their GCSEs.
- To target this additional support, the DfE should ensure persistently disadvantaged pupils can be easily identified by schools. Including these identifiers on the National Pupil Database will additionally support research on the outcomes of these pupils. The DfE should also make available centrally held data linking family income to pupil-level attainment, given that Universal Credit protections will continue to affect who is considered disadvantaged based on FSM eligibility.
- There needs to be more effective support for the very youngest children with SEND and for all children with the most significant SEND, as there has been no progress in closing the gap for these groups in recent years. We have previously recommended better teacher training, reviewing the high needs budget, ensuring access to other professionals such as educational psychologists, as well as improving access to Child and Adult Mental Health Services and NHS assessments. There is also a need for improved early identification of SEND in young children. This could take the form of a thorough screening check during reception year.
- The DfE should develop an understanding of why the attainment of some ethnic groups has been more adversely impacted by the pandemic (for example White and Black Caribbean pupils) than others, including the roles of poverty and pupil absence which are known to vary by ethnicity.
Early years foundation stage
Disadvantaged pupils have, on average, lower attainment, than other pupils and this disadvantage gap widens as pupils progress in their education. In 2022, the disadvantage gap among pupils aged 5 was 4.8 months, up from 4.2 months in 2019. This increase comes after a sustained period (2016-2019) where the gap had remained broadly stable at just above 4 months. The post-pandemic gap of 4.8 months – the largest since 2014 – is a setback, given the earlier progress in narrowing the gap during 2013-2016.
Figure D1: The disadvantage gap for pupils in reception year widened in 2022 to its highest level since 2014
How do we measure the disadvantage gap?
We measure the disadvantage gap by comparing the attainment of disadvantaged pupils and their non-disadvantaged peers. For pupils in reception year, we define disadvantage as being currently eligible for free for school meals (FSM), and for older pupils, being FSM eligible at any point in the previous six years. At each key stage, we order pupils by their attainment results and use this to assign them a rank. We then calculate the average rank of non-disadvantaged and disadvantaged pupil groups and the difference between the two (known as the ‘mean rank difference’) is converted into a months of learning gap. This is our measure of how far behind disadvantaged pupils are from their peers.
The disadvantage gap at the end of primary school increased between 2019 and 2022 from 9.3 to 10.3 months –the second largest gap since the start of our series in 2011, when it was 10.6 months. Following sustained progress in narrowing the gap from 2011 to 2018, the gap increased slightly in 2019 even prior to the pandemic, and then substantially increased in 2022, wiping out nearly all the earlier progress. Based on the historic rate of progress in gap-narrowing prior to the pandemic, the Department for Education expects that it may take another ten years to simply return the gap to the level it was in 2019.
Figure D2: The disadvantage gap at the end of primary school widened in 2022 to above its 2012 level, wiping out a decade of progress in narrowing the gap
 House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts. “Education recovery in schools in England.” 22 May 2023. https://committees.parliament.uk/publications/40220/documents/196416/default/.
One-quarter of pupils are defined as disadvantaged by the end of secondary school, a smaller proportion than the 29 per cent of pupils at the end of primary school. This is because, as children get older, their parents are more likely to enter work and exceed the earnings threshold for free school meal eligibility. The disadvantage gap in GCSE English and maths widened to 18.8 months in 2022 – its largest since 2012. Following good initial progress in narrowing the gap between 2011 and 2014 (from 19.7 months to 18.2 months), the gap then remained at around 18 months in the years leading up to the pandemic.
Figure D3: The disadvantage gap in GCSE English and maths widened in 2022 to its largest level since 2012
Persistent disadvantage gaps
In our previous reports we have shown not only that disadvantaged pupils tend to do worse than their peers but that those who are disadvantaged for the longest time do worst of all. Here we consider attainment gaps for persistently disadvantaged pupils – comprising 14 per cent of pupils by the of primary school and 11 per cent by the end of secondary.
 Education Policy Institute. “Covid-19 and Disadvantage Gaps in England 2021.” 15 December 2022. https://epi.org.uk/publications-and-research/covid-19-and-disadvantage-gaps-in-england-2021/.
|How do we measure the persistent disadvantage gap?
Whilst there is no official definition of pupils in long-term poverty, we define this group as pupils who are eligible for free school meals for 80 per cent or more of their school lives. We are able to identify these pupils in the National Pupil Database by using pupils’ school census records in the spring term to create a longitudinal picture of each pupil’s length of time being eligible for FSM.
We can then measure the persistent disadvantage gap in a similar way to our headline disadvantage gap measure (see box above) by comparing the attainment of persistently disadvantaged pupils with their non-disadvantaged peers.
Note it is not possible to create this measure for pupils in reception year (for whom we do not have FSM history) and the nature of the persistence changes across key stages – being FSM-eligible for 80 per cent of a pupil’s time in school by the end of secondary school is a longer period of time than for a pupil at the end of primary school.
Primary and secondary school
The persistent disadvantage gap at the end of primary school in 2022 was 12.2 months, similar to the 2019 gap of 12.1 months. This is the highest the gap has been since 2017 and matches the long-run average over the period 2011-2019.
In 2022, the persistent disadvantage gap at the end of secondary school was 22.7 months – unchanged from 2019, the latest year unaffected by the pandemic and virtually unchanged since 2011 (at 22.8 months). As for key stage 2, this indicates that, there has been a lack of progress in gap-narrowing for persistently disadvantaged pupils over the last decade.
Figure D4: There has been no progress in closing the persistent disadvantage gap over the last decade across key stages – persistently disadvantaged pupils are over one year behind their non-disadvantaged peers by the end of primary school and almost two years behind by the end of secondary school
The impact of Universal Credit
We have previously reported that the persistence of disadvantage appears to have been increasing among the group of disadvantaged pupils even prior to the pandemic and cost of living crisis.2 This is a potentially concerning trend and one that is consistent with wider evidence of rising child poverty. But understanding what is happening to the persistently disadvantaged group has been complicated by wider changes to the welfare system with the roll out of Universal Credit, summarised below and discussed in more detail here.
 Carey Oppenheim. “Changing Patterns of Poverty in Early Childhood.” 14 September 2021. https://www.nuffieldfoundation.org/publications/changing-patterns-of-poverty-in-early-childhood.
 National Foundation for Educational Research. “Measuring Pupil Disadvantage: The Case for Change.” 8 March 2023. https://www.nfer.ac.uk/publications/measuring-pupil-disadvantage-the-case-for-change/.
|How is Universal Credit affecting free school meal eligibility?
Universal Credit (UC) is a social security benefit which was introduced in April 2013 to replace six existing means-tested benefits, aimed at ensuring people are better-off in work. Prior to April 2018, UC claimants with school-aged children were eligible to claim FSM. From April 2018, an income threshold was introduced so that new UC claimants were only eligible if they earned less than £7,400 per year. To ease this transition, the government put in place protections during the period of UC roll out. This meant that any pupil eligible for FSM (and subsequently eligible) would retain free school meals until at least March 2025 – even if their family income increased above the threshold during that time.
This this means that since 2018, there has been an increasing number of pupils who are eligible for FSM due to transitional protections rather than their financial circumstances. This will not affect our headline disadvantage gap measure until 2024, as this is based on being eligible for FSM in the last six years which creates a six year lag. But it does mean that each year from 2019 onwards, our persistently disadvantaged group will be capturing a more transient, higher-attaining group over time (as some of these pupils would have otherwise become ineligible for FSM, had it not been for the UC protections). It consequently becomes harder to interpret our persistent disadvantage gap over time as a measure of changes in underlying attainment for the poorest pupils, as the composition of the group itself is changing.
Despite the persistently disadvantaged group capturing a generally higher-attaining group of pupils in recent years (see box above), we have seen that the persistent disadvantage gap – as measured using FSM eligibility – has not changed between 2019 and 2022. This suggests that the underlying gap may have worsened in the absence of UC protections. One way to explore the impact of UC protections is to remove cases where FSM eligibility could potentially have been affected by the protections. When we recalculate our persistent disadvantage gap measure at the end of secondary school for this subgroup, we do indeed see some evidence of worsening educational outcomes for persistently disadvantaged pupils between 2019 and 2022.
Figure D4: Using an alternative persistent disadvantage gap measure which adjusts for the impact of Universal Credit protections suggests worsening GCSE attainment for the poorest pupils since 2019
 Specifically, any years in which pupils may be benefiting from transitional protections are not used in calculating the persistent disadvantage gap. This alternative measure involves discarding FSM years in cases where we are uncertain if the pupil is eligible due to UC protections or due to their financial circumstances. Years up to 2018 are unaffected on this measure because we base our data on the January census which pre-dates the introduction of UC protections in April 2018.
Special Educational Needs and Disability
Pupils with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) are some of the most educationally disadvantaged in the English state school system. Our previous research has found that four in ten children will be identified as SEND at some point between the ages of 5 and 16. In our analysis we distinguish between pupils who receive support in school (SEN support) and those with more complex needs set out in an education, health and care plan (EHCP), and we compare both groups to their peers with no identified needs.
By the end of reception year, children receiving SEN Support were over a year behind their peers with no identified SEN in 2022, highlighting that there are already sizeable gaps for pupils with additional needs on starting school. This gap grows to 18 months by the end of primary school and to almost two years by the end of secondary school.
The gap for children in reception receiving SEN Support in 2022 widened over the course of the pandemic to reach its highest level (12.4 months) since the start of the series in 2013. By contrast, the SEN Support gap at the end of key stage 2 narrowed between 2019 and 2022 (to 18.1 months in 2022), continuing its long-term downward trend since 2011 (when it was three months higher, at 21.1 months).
The SEN Support gap at the end of key stage 4 also narrowed during both the pre- and post-pandemic periods, reducing by almost six months since 2011 to 23.0 months in 2022. However, for both key stages 2 and 4, progress in closing the gap has slowed since 2016.
Figure S1: Children receiving SEN Support are over a year behind their peers in reception year and this gap grows to 18 months by the end of primary school and reaches almost 2 years by the end of secondary
Education Health and Care Plans
Attainment gaps are wider still for pupils with more complex needs. For children in reception year with an EHCP, the gap in 2022 was 19.7 months – a level largely unchanged since 2014.
Meanwhile the EHCP gap for pupils at the end of primary school was 28.3 months in 2022, slightly higher than its pre-pandemic level in 2019 (28.1 months) but still a smaller gap than at the start of the series in 2011 (at 29.8 months).
By the end of secondary school, the EHCP gap was even wider at almost three and a half years (40.7 months) in 2022. But in contrast to earlier phases, this is a smaller gap than prior to the pandemic (at 41.1 months in 2019) and sustains its long-term downward trend, albeit at a slower rate of progress than during the earlier period 2011-2015.
Figure S2: The EHCP gap has remained largely unchanged for pupils in reception year in 2022 compared to 2014, but at both key stages 2 and 4 the EHCP gap has narrowed over the period 2011-2022, albeit at a slower rate of progress since 2015
There is substantial variation in pupil attainment by pupils’ ethnic group. We use the largest group, White British pupils, as the comparison group, such that the gap for these pupils is set to zero in each year. As our key interest is in how the pandemic has affected attainment gaps, we show a snapshot of attainment (relative to White British pupils) for each ethnic group in both 2019 and 2022.
Early years foundation stage
At age 5, only four ethnic groups were ahead of White British pupils in 2022, namely Chinese, White and Asian, White Irish and Indian pupils. These gaps were small at under two months though, with the exception of White Irish pupils, were larger than in 2019.
Among lower-attaining groups at age 5, two ethnicities stood out as having large gaps compared with White British pupils in 2022: Gypsy Roma pupils (with a gap of 8.6 months in 2022) and Irish Traveller pupils (7.9 months). These gaps are similar to, or smaller than, their 2019 levels.
This is in contrast to most lower-attaining ethnic groups which generally saw their gaps widen in 2022 compared with 2019: these include Black African and Black Caribbean pupils, and pupils of Any Other Black Background.
Figure E1: Over the course of the pandemic, White British pupils aged 5 have pulled away from most lower-attaining ethnic groups (except those at the very bottom of the distribution) but fallen further behind those at the top
By the end of primary school, many ethnic groups had improved their position relative to White British pupils in 2022, who were mid-ranking as opposed to being in the top third at age 5. The high attainment of Chinese and Indian pupils remains notable (ahead of White British pupils by 10.7 and 8.8 months, respectively). However so, too, is the low level of attainment among Gypsy Roma and Irish Traveller pupils, who lagged behind White British pupils by 19.2 and 18.2 months, respectively, as well as Black Caribbean, and White and Black Caribbean, pupils whose relative positions in the overall distribution both fell compared to aged 5.
When considering changes between 2019 and 2022, most ethnic groups narrowed the gap relative to White British pupils, including pupils of Any Other Black Background. In some cases, the improvement caused historically lower-attaining pupils to overtake White British pupils – namely pupils of Any Other White Background and Pakistani pupils. The exceptions were White and Black Caribbean and Irish Traveller pupils whose gaps both widened between 2019 and 2022.
Figure E2: Most ethnic groups narrowed the gap at the end of primary school (relative to White British pupils) between 2019 and 2022
Reflecting trends for key stage 2, some ethnic groups attained significantly better GCSE grades than White British pupils in 2022 including Chinese, Indian and pupils of Any Other Asian Background. These groups were all one to two years ahead of White British pupils in 2022, having pulled further ahead since 2019. Indeed, most ethnic groups that outperformed White British pupils in 2022 extended their lead since 2019 – including Bangladeshi pupils (as we saw at key stage 2) – or overtook White British pupils, including Black African pupils, Pakistani pupils and pupils of Any Other White Background. Although pupils of Any Other Black Background remained behind White British pupils in 2022 (by 2.2 months), the reduction of almost 5 months in the gap since 2019 is notable as the largest improvement of all ethnic groups.
The lowest attaining ethnic groups at GCSE in 2022 were Gypsy Roma pupils, Irish Traveller pupils, Black Caribbean pupils, and White and Black Caribbean pupils. However, whereas most of these groups have made some progress in narrowing the gap, White and Black Caribbean pupils stand out as the only ethnicity whose gap relative to White British pupils did not narrow between 2019 and 2022.
Figure E3: Higher-attaining ethnic groups at GCSE have pulled further away from White British pupils since 2019 and lower-attaining groups have generally narrowed the gap, though this has not been the case for White and Black Caribbean pupils
Attainment methodology and changes since 2019
Throughout our analysis we use the National Pupil Database (NPD)1 which captures pupils in state schools in England. We include all state-funded schools except for those whose sole, or main, registration was in alternative provision, a pupil referral unit or a hospital school. Independent schools are not included. Here we set out which attainment measures we use for each phase, as well as a little detail on the changes in overall attainment since 2019.
Our analysis was carried out in the Secure Research Service, part of the Office for National Statistics (ONS). It contains statistical data from ONS which is Crown Copyright. The use of the ONS statistical data in this work does not imply the endorsement of the ONS in relation to the interpretation or analysis of the statistical data. This work uses research datasets which may not exactly reproduce National Statistics aggregates.
Early years foundation stage
To measure children’s development at age 5, we use the statutory teacher-led assessments against the early years foundation stage (EYFS) profile. Specifically, we use a pupil’s total point score across the 12 (of 17) early learning goals which correspond to the Department for Education’s ‘good level of development’ measure.2 Although the EYFS was reformed in 2021 affecting both the goals themselves and how these are assessed, we have adjusted our time series to allow us to compare 2022 attainment to earlier years.
In 2022, the average EYFSP total point score was 21.8 (compared to a maximum possible score of 24 for pupils meeting the expected standard in all 12 early learning goals), and slightly below the 2019 score of 22.0.
At the end of primary school pupil attainment is measured by statutory key stage 2 assessments. Specifically we base our attainment measure on pupils’ average scaled score in reading and maths.
In 2022, the average scaled score was 102.5. This is a reduction of 0.8 scaled score points from 2019, the most recent pre-pandemic year when pupils sat key stage 2 assessments. Prior to 2019, average attainment at the end of primary school had been improving since the introduction of the new key stage 2 tests in 2016. The decline in attainment in 2022 highlights the on-going educational challenges in the aftermath of the pandemic, with these pupils having experienced disruption to their earlier learning, particularly at the end of year 4 and in year 5.
To assess overall attainment at the end of secondary school – known as key stage 4 – we measure pupils’ average GCSE grade across English and maths. Achieving good grades in these core subjects is often a prerequisite for progressing to further study and, unlike a measure based on all GCSE subjects, it is not distorted by changes in subject entry over time (which can affect the distribution of exam results in any given year). We use the 9 to 1 grading system which was introduced in 2017.
In 2022, the average GCSE grade across English and maths was 4.8. As intended, this is the midpoint between the average grade in 2019 (of 4.6) and 2021 (5.0), as policymakers sought to gradually return grades towards pre-pandemic levels.