GCSE analysis reveals stark attainment gap between rich and poor students

By Joe Lepper

| 21 August 2019

Pupils from England's most disadvantaged areas are almost twice as likely to fail their GCSEs than those from affluent backgrounds, according to analysis of exam results.

Teach First is calling for more investment in schools in poorer areas. Picture: Adobe Stock

The analysis by education charity Teach First found that 38 per cent of pupils from England's most disadvantaged areas do not pass their maths GCSE, compared with 20 per cent of those from the richest areas.

The research into the rich and poor attainment gap among students found that 38 per cent from disadvantaged areas fail to pass English language GCSE. In contrast, 22 per cent of children from more affluent families passed this subject.

The figures come on the day that this year's GCSE results have been published.

The stark education divide based on disadvantage continues across a raft of subjects.

Around half (46 per cent) of poorer pupils do not pass history GCSE, compared with 27 per cent of richer students and 41 per cent of poorer children fail to pass French GCSE, compared with 26 per cent of their wealthier peers.

While 15 per cent of pupils from poor backgrounds fail to pass all three sciences, the figure is just five per cent among more affluent children.

In addition, in maths just 13 per cent of the poorest pupils achieve top grades, which are equivalent to A- A*, compared with 26 per cent of students from richer areas.

Teach First is calling on the government to invest more money into schools in poorer areas. This should include boosting teacher salaries in such areas, says the charity.

"A child's postcode should never determine how well they do at school, yet today we've found huge disparities based on just that," said Teach First chief executive Russell Hobby.

"Low attainment at GCSE is a real cause for concern, as it can shut doors to future success and holds young people back from meeting their aspirations. 

"We know that it is possible to alter the outcome for children in every area. Because time and time again we've seen the transformational difference a brilliant education can make, helping all young people to thrive.  

"But if we are to achieve this everywhere, the Prime Minister needs to not only hold true to his promise of more investment for schools - but he must target it at those in areas of the greatest need. That also means urgently addressing teacher starting salaries, to help encourage more talented people into the profession, so they can use their skills and knowledge where it really matters."

Kevan Collins, chief executive of The Education Endowment Foundation, set up by social mobility charity The Sutton Trust, said: "Closing the attainment gap between poorer pupils and their classmates is our best shot at improving social mobility.

"So it is disappointing to see that disadvantaged pupils are almost twice as likely to leave formal education without good grades in English and maths. Prospects for this group are bleak.

"We know the attainment gap is not inevitable - in almost one in 10 secondary schools disadvantaged pupils' outcomes exceed the national average for all pupils - so it is possible to make important headway in boosting outcomes for the poorest students. Every extra grade gained can make an important difference to a young person's future."  

Last week the Sutton Trust revealed that pupils from low-income families are among the most likely to shun university.

A Department for Education spokesperson said it is already reducing the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers.

"The gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers has narrowed considerably since 2011, and 85 per cent of children are now in good or outstanding schools compared to just 66 per cent in 2010," said a Department for Education spokesperson.

"And our £2.4bn pupil premium is helping the most disadvantaged children. But we must do more.

"The Prime Minister has committed to increasing school funding so we can level up all parts of the UK and close the opportunity gap. We will continue to drive up school standards right across the country, and do more to continue to attract and retain talented individuals in our classrooms as well as giving teachers the powers they need to deal with bad behaviour and bullying."

The Teach First analysis looks at 2018's results and has been published ahead of the release of 2019's GCSE results this week.

GCSEs have undergone reform this year, with traditional A*-G grades replaced with 9-1 grades and less focus on coursework.

The National Education Union says that the reforms have damaged the mental health of young people and are failing to reflect their abilities.

A union poll of members found that 73 per cent believe students' mental health has worsened due to the reforms and 54 per cent believe that pupils' abilities are less accurately recorded under the new GCSEs. The poll also found that 61 per cent have seen a worsening of student engagement with education.

Nansi Ellis, assistant general secretary of the National Education Union, said: "Assessment in the majority of subjects by end of year exams only, and excessive content crammed into too short a time, is resulting in an exam system that is largely about regurgitating facts with very little time for thinking or deeper learning.

"Not only does this fail to reflect students' ability but is leading to many feeling disillusioned, disengaged and stressed."

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