The attainment gap between poorer pupils and their more affluent counterparts could widen after it stopped closing for the first time in a decade, according to a new study.
The Education Policy Institute’s (EPI) findings have highlighted major issues within education for more vulnerable and deprived students.
The report is likely to cause alarm given the halt in progress occurred before the coronavirus pandemic had hit the education system.
Researchers found that disadvantaged pupils in England are 18.1 months of learning behind their peers by the time they finish their GCSE’s – the same gap as five years ago. It also found that the gap at primary school increased for the first time since 2007.
And for the most persistently disadvantaged students, the attainment gap had actually widened in every year but one since 2014.
The report concluded that the findings provide “concerning evidence that progress in narrowing educational inequalities has ground to a halt”.
It added: “The gap between disadvantaged pupils and their non-disadvantaged peers has stopped closing. This was the worrying position from which the school system entered the pandemic and lockdown in 2020, which are widely expected to worsen disadvantage gaps.”
The EPI report found the seaside town of Blackpool had one of the widest gaps in the country. It is an area of deprivation and home to very vulnerable children and families.
Reece Otley has five children of school age. He says he doesn’t have enough money to buy school uniforms for their return to class next week.
“It can be quite a worry this time of year to make sure everything is in position for the kids getting back to school.
“We’re at the lower end of the income scale, we’re really not well off and this has a huge impact on my children’s education – I can tell that, it’s obvious.”
He added: “Because of the COVID situation and lack of income coming in and the children being at home more, we’ve had to reach out to the food bank from our daughter’s school.”
Blackpool headteacher has seen for herself the effects of deprivation on children’s life chances.
Speaking to Sky News, she said: “The most vulnerable is becoming more common. Families are struggling without a washing machine, the children have to go to bed with a coat on because their no heating, they may not be able to get the bus to school because they can’t afford the bus fare.
“In turn they’ll have to walk, they walk in the rain, they don’t have a suitable coat; so they’ll come to us at school after limited sleep, hungry and damp. So it’s down to us to put that right.”
“It’s becoming more and more and I know when we get back in September, the pandemic would have created another layer of deprivation within our families.”
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David Laws, executive chairman of the EPI, said: “This report highlights that in spite of the government’s aspiration to ‘level up’ opportunity, the education gap between poor children and the rest is no longer closing, for the first time in around a decade.
“Before the COVID crisis, disadvantaged children were around 1.5 years of learning behind other pupils, and this figure seems almost certain to have increased since the closure of schools.
“It is deeply concerning that our country entered the pandemic with such a lack of progress in this key area of social policy, and the government urgently needs to put in place new policy measures to help poor children to start to close the gap again.”