Mind the gap

GCSE figures released last week show that the gap in attainment between richer and poorer students is widening. Demos analysis of the latest figures show that, in 2013, 38.1% of children on Free School Meals hit the government’s benchmark of 5 or more A*- C grades at GCSE (including English and Maths), compared to 64.8% of all other pupils. This represents a national attainment gap of 26.7% – an increase of 0.3% on the previous year.

Looking at the local level reveals more. Not only did almost half of local authorities see an increase in their attainment gap last year, it’s also clear that the success of London schools in recent years is skewing the national data. When London’s local authorities are excluded, the national attainment gap increases from 26.7% to 29.5%. 27 out of 33 London authorities are doing better – often significantly so – than the national average.

In terms of the longer term trend, our figures show that the national attainment gap had previously been decreasing – but only by 1.2% in the two years before this latest increase. This means that, whichever way you look at it, insufficient progress is being made. A family’s level of income continues to remain a key predictor of their child’s educational success.

The government’s flagship policy for tackling the attainment gap is the Pupil Premium, introduced in 2011. This is additional money given to schools for each pupil eligible for Free School Meals (and pupils who have been eligible at any time in the last six years). It’s a good policy, in theory. It makes sense to give schools extra money to drive improvements in the attainment of poorer pupils. It’s also a good idea to front-load the Pupil Premium onto primary schools, given that the attainment gap at the end of primary school is already around 20%. From next year, primary schools will receive £1300 per eligible pupil, compared to £900 for pupils at secondary schools.

It will take time to see how effective the Pupil Premium will be. Schools have only received the funding for two full years. But nevertheless, it is worrying that 4 in 10 local authorities have a higher attainment gap now than before the Pupil Premium was introduced in 2011. Having money helps, but the important question is how it is spent. Interventions need to be based on the best available evidence of what works, but also a robust understanding of the underlying causes of attainment gaps both in and outside of school.

Sharing best practice is already happening. Most schools are spending the money on in-school interventions including one-to-one tuition and catch-up classes. ‘System leaders’ – people with successful track records in narrowing gaps – are there to help struggling schools devise new plans. In general, collaboration between schools on how to spend the Pupil Premium is good news. Many put the success of London in closing gaps down to schools working more closely together during the London Challenge.

Interventions don’t necessarily have to be expensive either. Demos is currently running a pilotin four schools across the country giving pupils the opportunity to set their own goals, with the aim of improving participation and attainment. The Education Endowment Foundationestimates that these sorts of interventions can add up to 8 months of additional progress.

But the fact that the attainment gap is increasing suggests that we have not really got to grips with the problem. It’s about more than sharing good practice. We need to return to some basic questions and answer them more robustly. What factors in individual pupils’ lives are leading to these gaps in the first place? Which are the most important of these factors? Once we answered these in a satisfactory way we can start to design new and more effective interventions.