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'Wake-up call' for UK government as report shows GCSE attainment gap widening

Gareth Fuller/PA Wire

By Emma Bowden, PA

Poor teenagers are 18 months behind their wealthier peers in their GCSEs as progress in closing the divide has come to a standstill, according to a report.

The GCSE attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their wealthier counterparts widened slightly between 2017 and 2018, the Education Policy Institute (EPI) annual report suggests.

Progress has slumped for the first time since 2011 and, if the recent five-year trend continues, the research concludes that it will take more than 500 years for the gap to close.

It also found that disadvantage gaps are larger and growing in parts of northern England.

Researchers calculated that, in 2018, poorer students were generally around 9.2 months behind their richer classmates at the end of primary school.

By the time they took their GCSEs, the report found they were 18.1 months behind in terms of average attainment in English and maths - widening by 0.2 since 2017.

For all GCSE subjects, the figure remained unchanged from 2017 at 18.4 months.

Based on official Government data looking at pupils' academic achievement in England, the research compares those eligible for free school meals at any time in a six-year period with their better-off peers.

The most persistently disadvantaged students - those eligible for free school meals for at least 80% of their time in school - are almost two years (22.6 months) behind their peers by the time they leave secondary school.

David Laws, EPI's executive chairman and former Liberal Democrat schools minister, called the findings a "major setback" for social mobility.

"Educational inequality on this scale is bad for both social mobility and economic productivity," he said.

"This report should be a wake-up call for our new Prime Minister.

"We need a renewed policy drive to narrow the disadvantage gap - and this needs to be based on evidence of what makes an impact, rather than on political ideology or guesswork."

But the Government said the gap had "narrowed considerably" in recent years.

School standards Minister Nick Gibb said: "We are investing £2.4 billion this year alone through the Pupil Premium to help the most disadvantaged children.

"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."

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders' union NAHT, said the findings must not "become a turning point" after progress in closing the gap in recent years.

"Schools and colleges need an immediate multi-billion-pound emergency investment, alongside a long-term commitment to sufficient education funding, and proper investment in health, social care, the police and the other services that schools and families rely on," he said.

"Without this, any promises of a brighter future for our country will fail."

Shadow education secretary Angela Rayner said: "Successive Tory governments have cut school budgets for the first time in a generation and slashed funding from Sure Start to further education, and now we are seeing the consequences.

"Sadly there is no reason to expect that will change with the new Prime Minister and Education Secretary, who are intent on handing out yet more massive tax giveaways to the super-rich rather than investing in all our children."

Anntoinette Bramble, chairwoman of the Local Government Association's Children and Young People Board, said: "Councils have an excellent track record in improving schools, and need to be given the necessary powers to intervene and support all failing schools, including academies, yet all this good work is at risk if all schools aren't adequately funded.

"This is why it is essential that the Prime Minister provides sustainable funding during the forthcoming Spending Review, and plugs the funding gap of up to £1.6 billion by 2021 that councils face supporting children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND)."

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