Mind the gap: the link between poverty and educational development

12 Aug

The attainment gap between pupils from well-heeled backgrounds and those from the deprived segments of our society continues to grow by the time pupils attained the age of 16, according to the 2019 annual report of the Education Policy Institute (EPI).  Disadvantaged pupils were a week further behind than their peers in 2018.  The EPI research also discovered that by the school-leaving age – the pupils in London were two years ahead – achievement-wise – than their peers in some northern areas such as Rotherham and Blackpool.  Poor pupils in these towns were two years behind their more privileged class friends, said EPI.

There is more bad news.   The pre-school gap stopped closing.  Is this because we have abandoned the Sure Start programme? (Who knows?) The good news is that the gap between rich and poor pupils is closing at primary level.   There is now a 9.2 months difference in achievement by the age of 11 when compared to the 10.7 months in 2011.    However, at the secondary stage, the gap grew.  The researchers hinted that this could be the case because secondary institutions had been more exposed to the cuts.

The other EPI finding is that pupils of Chinese and Indian heritage significantly outperform those of white British and black Caribbean backgrounds.

Nick Clegg, the former Deputy Prime Minister in the coalition government recognised that the gap that exists between pupils from deprived backgrounds and the rest goes back into history. This was why he prevailed on his boss, ex-Prime Minister David Cameron, to create the Pupil Premium Grant (PPG) to assist pupils who were on free school meals and those who had been on free school meals for the last six years.  It exists today and is worth £1,320 for a primary and £935 for a secondary pupil.  Schools and academies control how this money is spent albeit it must be targeted at the poor pupils.  However, there is anecdotal evidence to suggest that schools and academies are spending the money to ease the pain they are suffering from budget cuts.  Despite the PPG, by the time they leave school/academy, children entitled to the grant are 18 months behind their better-off peers.

Sir Kevan Collins, Chief Executive of the Education Endowment Foundation, who carried out research on the interventions that help fiscally disadvantaged pupils to make good progress and achieve well, expressed concern about the EPI findings.   He told The Times: “Good teaching is the most important lever schools have to improve outcomes for disadvantaged pupils. That is why we have called for schools to strengthen the link between teaching and their pupil premium funding, including through prioritising the recruitment, retention and development of effective teachers.”

The EPI authors refrained from apportioning blame for this sad state of affairs.   However, they stress that the government must focus on what worked rather than rely on political shibboleths and ideological guesswork.

While the financial cuts have hit schools/academies, differences in the home environment play a part in holding poorer pupils back.  Middle-class parents spend more time with their children. They have at least one meal a day together during which they talk about what they learnt at school/academy and the events of the day.  The parents in cash-strapped families spend much less time with their children – for good and bad reasons.   Many expend considerable time and energy trying to scratch around for a living and leave children to their own devices.

In 1943, Rab Butler, the then Education Minister proposed in a White Paper free education for all pupils up to the age of 15. This took effect in 1947.   Butler averred that all teenagers – whatever their backgrounds – would have a better start to life.   The school-leaving age was raised to 16 in 1972.  All state-run education is free.  However, parents play a vital role. They are the first educators of children.  The editor of The Times, wrote: “Overworked teachers cannot be expected to perform miracles, but when the disadvantaged gap is opening, not closing, it is time to act.”

The present Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, was born in Scarborough and was state-educated.  The achievement gap in his home town is growing fast.  In Scarborough, poor pupils start out 7.1 months behind their better-off peers. At secondary level, the gap grows to 24.3 months.  Will he do something about this and if so, what?

Two pieces of action could help.

First, improve the funding in education.  Nick Gibbs, the schools minister, said that the government had invested £2.4 billion. “Teachers and school leaders are helping to drive up standards right across the country, with 85% of children now in good or outstanding schools compared to just 66% in 2010, but there is more to do to continue to attract and retain talented individuals in our classrooms,” he said.  However, many schools and academies are on their financial uppers.  If pupils’ achievements are as good as Gibbs claims they are, the credit must go to the pupils, their teachers, support staff, the leaders and the governors.   No credit can go to government.   Where institutions are doing well it is despite government inaction.

Second, parental background has an impact of pupils’ development.   The EPI showed that Chinese and Indian teenagers attained higher grades than their white British peers. Black Caribbean pupils have been further behind white British pupils over the last seven years.  Pakistani pupils, who were 3.4 months behind white British pupils in 2011, were now only 0.5 months behind.

Parental support is a crucial factor.  Parents, after all, have children – not the other way around.  They owe it to them to give them a good start to life.


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