The Independent

Disadvanta­ged students are falling behind at same rate as a decade ago, finds study


Poorer students are lagging behind their peers at the same rate as they were a decade ago, a report on the long-standing attainment gap has found. Disadvanta­ged pupils have fallen further behind in primary school and at GCSE as progress towards more equal outcomes has slid backwards, the annual research found.

They were at their furthest point behind more well-off peers at these stages since 2012, according to the Fair Education Alliance, a coalition of 250 groups that aim to tackle inequality within education. It said the Covid pandemic served as a blow to progress being made to narrow the attainment gap, with the cost of living crisis now risking making the situation even worse.

The attainment gap has long been an issue in the UK, with wealthier peers generally tending to do better in school than more disadvanta­ged peers. The Fair Education Alliance published its annual report on educationa­l inequality on Wednesday, offering an assessment on how the attainment gap stands in 2022.

The alliance found the divide between disadvanta­ged pupils and their peers has widened in maths, writing and reading at primary school due to disruption caused by the Covid pandemic,

which sent students home for months at a time, and was now at its widest point since 2012.

Similarly, the attainment gap at GCSE was at its highest point in the past decade. The Fair Education Alliance said this could be down to major policy changes to per-pupil funding and the limiting of subject choice at GCSE. The regional attainment gap which sees students from London outperform others was also widening, the report said. In this year’s GCSE results, the divide between the proportion of students getting top grades between the north and south grew.

Concerns were also raised over the regional divide in A-level results this year. The Fair Education Alliance said it had grown between regions such as high-performing London and the northeast. The Fair Education Alliance “report card” also said young people from low-income families, or who have special educationa­l needs or disabiliti­es, have failed to recover from the Covid pandemic at the same rate as their peers.

Gina Cicerone, its chief executive, said: “This sobering research reveals that the gap between young people from low-income background­s and their wealthier peers is still as wide as it was a decade ago, and will get wider without urgent action.”

“Education is key to achieving a prosperous society with a strong economy, safe communitie­s and healthy citizens, but schools cannot achieve this alone. We need investment now to give all children and young people a fair education, and to drive Britain’s success as a nation.”

The Fair Education Alliance made a series of recommenda­tions, including targeted spending towards schools and pupils who need it most in the cost of living crisis, and to extend the free school meals scheme to all families on benefits. The Independen­t’s Feed the Future campaign is also calling on the government to expand its eligibilit­y criteria to support all children in poverty with free school meals.

Natalie Perera from the Education Policy Institute think tank said: “In the early part of the decade leading up to 2020, the disadvanta­ge gap was closing for both primary and secondary

pupils. In the latter part of the decade, progress in closing the gap slowed down and then stalled completely.”

The Fair Education Alliance trustee said a “number of plausible reasons” could be behind the stall in progress, including an increase in child poverty and real-term cuts to school funding.

Nick Brook from the school leaders’ union NAHT said: “Children and young people from the poorest families were hit hardest by the impact of Covid. As this report shows, disruption caused by the pandemic has stripped away the hard-won progress of the last decade by returning attainment gaps to 2012 levels.”

He added: “With families now facing a cost of living crisis this winter that will once again disproport­ionately affect the poorest, the government cannot continue to sit back and abandon vulnerable children. They must find more money for education, children and young people in this autumn statement.”

The Department for Education was approached for comment.

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