The fight to close the disadvantage gap is far from over – but we mustn’t give up.

This week sees the release of a report by the Fair Education Alliance in partnership with the Education Policy Institute. It is a ‘report card’ that gives a snapshot of the current state of UK education across early years, primary, secondary and further education, on a range of measures.

The education sector can seem awash with such reports at times, but there are a number of headlines in this one to start alarm bells ringing. Here are a few of the key points raised:

  • Poorer pupils in England are, on average, a year and a half behind their peers by the time they finish their GCSEs.
  • Disadvantage gaps are larger, and are growing, in parts of the North.
  • The most persistently disadvantaged pupils are almost 2 years (22.6 months) behind at the end of GCSEs – and that gap has increased since 2011.
  • Post-16 education is becoming even more segregated, driven by an over-representation of disadvantaged students in further education.
  • Over recent years there has been a dramatic slowing down in the closure of the disadvantage gap. Given this and the rise in the gap in 2018, there is a real risk that we could be at a turning point, and that the progress made over recent years could be undone.

What to make of this? There is no doubt that the ongoing squeeze on school budgets is playing a part here, as is the ‘non-crisis’ the government faces in recruitment and retention. Both of these forces have their biggest impact in areas of high economic disadvantage, and we know that poorer pupils are, as a generalisation, much more vulnerable to the effects of weak teaching than their wealthier peers.

There is therefore a desperate need to get both school funding and teacher numbers back on track. Even if we start now, it will take years to recover from the ‘austerity’ doctrine that, after stripping away the social services in the most disadvantaged areas of the country, is now eroding the core provisions in our schools.

The report on vulnerable pupils makes three recommendations:

  1. We need an education system that develops the whole child: a system which values and incentivises skills and social and emotional competencies alongside academic attainment.
  2. We need to support and empower great teachers and leaders particularly those serving disadvantaged areas.
  3. We need better support for young people on what their options are post 16. All young people need access to clear, timely, easy to understand information about the opportunities available to them after school, as well as experience of and exposure to different routes. They need this so that they can make the right choices for their future.

It would be hard for anyone to disagree with these very broad recommendations. But we would go further. If the government is really serious about levelling the educational playing field, then we should ensure that basic skills, including reading, spelling, and maths facts, are fluent for all children by the time that they reach secondary school. This is particularly so for the most vulnerable – that is, SEN students and the persistently disadvantaged. There is every reason to think that this relatively low-cost strategy will have much more leverage than the many pots of funding that have been frittered away, with limited or no impact, over the last decade.

The other key finding from the report is that we are out of time. If we want to see the gaps continue to close at a reasonable rate, we need to act now. Otherwise, as the report suggests, ‘progress made over recent years could be undone’.

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