3rd August 2017

Closing the Gap? Trends in Educational Attainment and Disadvantage

In this report, the Education Policy Institute has examined the progress made in closing the gap in attainment between disadvantaged pupils and their peers. The analysis considers how that gap varies across the country and how it has changed since 2007.

You can download the report here

Key findings

Overall trends

Persistently disadvantaged pupils:

  • The most disadvantaged pupils in England have fallen further behind their peers, and are now on average over 2 full years of learning behind non-disadvantaged pupils by the end of secondary.
  • The attainment gap at the end of secondary school for these persistently disadvantaged pupils has widened slightly by 0.3 months since 2007.

Disadvantaged pupils:

  • There has been some progress in closing the gap for disadvantaged pupils on average in England since 2007, which has narrowed by three months by the end of secondary.
  • However, this gap is closing slowly and inconsistently – this is despite considerable investment and targeted intervention programmes by the government.
  • In 2016, disadvantaged pupils were on average 19.3 months behind their peers by the time they took their GCSEs – meaning they are falling behind by around 2 months each year over the course of secondary school. From 2007 to 2016, the gap by the end of primary school has narrowed by 2.8 months and the gap by age 5 has narrowed by 1.2 months.
  • At the current rate of progress it would take a full 50 years to reach an equitable education system where disadvantaged pupils did not fall behind their peers during formal education to age 16.

Regional trends

Certain regions are lagging behind others considerably when it comes to closing the gap:

  • Pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds face the biggest struggle in the Isle of Wight, where they are almost two and a half years (29 months) behind their peers across the country by the end of secondary.
  • Other areas showing considerable gaps include Derby, Cumbria, and Knowsley (27 months), South Gloucestershire and Northumberland (26 months), and Dudley and Darlington (25 months).
  • At the opposite end of the scale, more successful areas include Hackney, Islington, Newham, Rutland and Barnet, where gaps are 8 months, and Southwark, Wandsworth and Tower Hamlets, where it stands at just 7 months.

When considering areas with similar gaps at the beginning of education, and comparing how they have changed by the end of secondary, we find stark differences:

  • Areas such as Darlington, Derby, Luton, South Tyneside and Thurrock are taking a step backwards with closing the gap, having performed particularly badly since 2012 compared with similar areas.
  • However, several areas have been successful in improving outcomes for the disadvantaged. Rutland, Waltham Forest, Islington, Brent, Barnet, Windsor and Maidenhead, and Richmond on Thames have seen significant declines in the gap since 2012.

Opportunity Areas

  • While the 12 Opportunity Areas identified by the government have growing and larger than average disadvantage gaps, we find that there are areas where the disadvantage gap has grown even faster.
  • The government should consider expanding Opportunity Areas to other local authority districts which have sizeable gaps which have increased since 2012 – including Darlington, Rossendale and Boston.

Pupil characteristics

  • Our analysis has also isolated certain ethnic groups falling behind.
  • Black Caribbean pupils start off with average attainment but fall behind through primary and secondary school. By the end of secondary school there are very few Travellers of Irish Heritage and Gypsy / Roma pupils amongst the top 50 per cent of performers.
  • In addition to these groups, we find England’s education system also neglects those with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND), who to struggle to keep pace with their peers.

Further comment and analysis: 

Jo Hutchinson: 50 years before we have an equitable school system‘ (Schools Week)

Natalie Perera: ‘Higher-attaining pupils with SEND fall behind as they progress through school’ (TES)