Poorer pupils' GCSE grades trail behind peers says education report highlighting Sheffield

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The gap between poorer pupils' GCSE grades and those of their peers has stalled for over a decade according to a new report which highlights the situation in Sheffield.

In 2020, the average GCSE grade gap between pupils trapped in long-term poverty - those eligible for free school meals for 80 per cent of their schooling or more - and their peers was 1.6 grades.

While this shows awarding teacher-assessed grades in 2020 did not disadvantage poorer pupils - the gap was 1.62 grades when public exams went ahead in 2019 - it also reveals there has been no progress in closing the gap since 2011.

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The report, from the Education Policy Institute (EPI), also found the grade gap between disadvantaged pupils - those eligible for free school meals at any time over the last six years - had stalled, with a gap of 1.24 grades in 2020 compared with 1.26 in 2019, and little progress has been made in closing it since 2017.

The researchers found there has been a "marked increase" in long-term poverty among poorer pupils in recent years.

In 2020, 39 per cent of poorer pupils had been eligible for free school meals for 80 per cent of their schooling or longer, up from 35 per cent in 2017,

The proportion of pupils who were "always" disadvantaged - those on free school meals for 100 per cent of their schooling - had also risen from 19 per cent of all disadvantaged students in 2017 to 25 per cent in 2020.

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The report also found considerable gaps between different geographic areas, with the largest grade gaps in 2020 seen in Knowsley (1.76 grades), Blackpool (1.69), Salford (1.66), Derby (1.65) and Sheffield (1.61) – all of which were identified as education "cold spots" in the Government's Levelling Up White Paper, with the exception of Sheffield.

Areas with the largest disadvantage gaps were more likely to have a high proportion of pupils in long-term poverty, and for several areas, over half of their disadvantaged pupils fell into this group, such as: Kirklees (58%), Sunderland (54%), Halton (53%), Tower Hamlets (53%), Middlesbrough (53%), Knowsley (52%), Kingston-Upon-Hull (52%), and Hartlepool (51%).

The report also found that poorer pupils in 16-19 education were on average the equivalent of 3.1 A level grades behind wealthier peers across their best three qualifications in 2020, compared to 2.9 grades in 2019.

For pupils aged 16-19 in long-term poverty, the gap stood at 4 grades in 2020, compared to 3.7 in 2019.

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Emily Hunt, a co-author of the report and associate director at EPI, said that the paper showed there had been a "decade of failure" when it came to improving attainment for pupils in long-term poverty.

"Our research shows that despite Government policy interventions, there has been a decade of failure to improve the relative outcomes of students in long-term poverty - with these students still trailing their better-off peers by over a full grade and a half at GCSE," she said.

"Not only has this education gap failed to narrow since 2011, but the proportion of poorer students falling into long-term poverty is now on the rise," she added.

Ms Hunt said that after "two years of disruption from the pandemic" it was "particularly critical" for the Government to act to "reverse this tide of stagnating social mobility".

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David Robinson, report co-author and director of Post-16 and Skills at EPI, said that it was "deeply concerning" that the grade gaps between poorer college and sixth form students and their peers were widening.

"Our research findings are very clear: these growing inequalities were driven by A levels gaining more from the system of teacher assessed grades than Applied General Qualifications, which far more disadvantaged students take. The result is that poorer students could have lost out when competing for university places," he added.

"These findings ought to alarm the Government, and we hope that urgent action is taken to ensure that students taking BTECs and other alternatives to A levels do not lose out again in 2022."

Cheryl Lloyd, education programme head at the Nuffield Foundation, which funded the research, said: "Students from lower income families are less likely to study A levels, which saw larger grade increases in 2020 than applied general qualifications such as BTECs.

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"This means that young people from disadvantaged backgrounds were effectively penalised for not studying A levels, and the disadvantage gap in 16-19 education has become further entrenched.

"The report also shows that disadvantage gaps are greatest in areas of the country that have a large proportion of students in long-term poverty.

"While the Government's Levelling Up White Paper promises to address geographical disparities, it is important that this is supported by action to address persistent underlying inequalities in the UK, such as poverty, which is having an increasingly detrimental effect on the educational outcomes of young people."

Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said the report was a "verdict on the dismal record of governments over the last decade and more".

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She added: "Since 2009, we have had years of rhetoric and precious little effective action.

"Worsening poverty has had what the EPI report is right to call a 'decisive' impact on the education of children and young people. 4.3 million children - or nine in a classroom of 30 - are living in poverty. This speaks of untold hardship endured the length and breadth of the UK."

"Education policies alone are not capable of addressing a problem on this scale - but they can certainly make it worse. Exam factory cultures, and the downgrading of creativity and vocational education have introduced disincentives to learning. In the way they are currently used, grades which are rationed and rely entirely on examinations work to lessen the chances of disadvantaged students."

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders' union NAHT, said children from disadvantaged backgrounds were "the victims of over a decade of underfunding and neglect by government".

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He added: "They have disproportionately suffered from funding cuts not just to education, but to all the wider services that should be there to help them.

"Over the last few years, we have seen a new funding formula that directs money away from the most disadvantaged, a pupil premium policy change that has led to some of the poorest families not receiving funding they should have been entitled to, and a failure to deliver on long overdue SEND reforms.

"In light of all that, talk of 'levelling up' starts to sound entirely hollow. If the Government is to achieve their stated goal of 'levelling up', they need to look carefully at the impact their reforms are having."