Strong evidence that Labour narrowed the attainment gap but now it's widening again...
Posted: 27 Dec, 2012
As the year draws to a close, it’s worth looking over the educational research conducted this year. One of the best pieces of research and possibly the least publicised was the Institute for Public Policy Research’s (IPPR) report, Long Division – Closing the Attainment Gap in England’s Secondary Schools, which was published with barely a murmur in September. One has to wonder whether Stephen Twigg, the Shadow Education Secretary, has examined this report carefully, because it amounts to the most persuasive evidence we have that the Labour Party did make a significant difference to the attainment of our poorest pupils -- even if you factor in grade-inflation. Possibly the furore surrounding the scandal of the English GCSE grades drowned out some of its very important findings. But considering that Michael Gove has tried to say that he's given a better deal to our poorest students by rolling out his academies and free schools programme, I wonder if Twigg has questioned Gove seriously on this issue. I've looked at Hansard but haven't found Twigg using these statistics as evidence that the Coalition is on the wrong track, but maybe I've missed it (I'm happy to be corrected on this)
The report is detailed and thorough, but contains some helpful charts that illustrate its key findings reasonably clearly. Figure 1.3 shows with the aid of a blue line how the attainment gap between the richest and poorest students narrowed between 2003 and 2011, although there’s evidence now that it’s widening again (see Figure 1.4). The report also shows that socio-economic wealth is very strongly linked with educational attainment, even if poor children go to outstanding schools. The next chart and its accompanying explanation underneath (Figure 2.4) is fascinating because it forecasts how well children from poor backgrounds would fare at GCSE if every one of them went to an outstanding school. It shows very clearly that even if children went to fantastic schools, there still would be a big attainment gap between children from wealthier and poorer backgrounds. Outstanding schools do make a difference, but not a huge difference.
The report illustrates what most teachers know from their own personal experience: the link between poverty and attainment is very strong. Policy makers need to look beyond the school gates if they really are serious about closing the gap. Cuts to benefits, increasing inflation and the flattening out of wages all mean that the attainment gap will widen in the coming years. Add to this Gove’s disastrous education policies, which have shifted money from local schools to unaccountable free schools and academies – many of which, though not all – are serving wealthier students, and you can see the attainment gap is going to become a gaping hole. The report says: “In this light, there is a particular danger that the current recession will increase the size of the achievement gap, as happened in previous recessions (Gregg et al 2012). The recent trends towards increased unemployment, child poverty and income inequality mean schools will have to work even harder to narrow the gap in achievement. As we show in section 1.5, the recession of 2009 may already be having an impact on GCSE results, which showed a widening achievement gap in 2011. In government terms, this means policies pursued in relation to the economy, communities and job market may undercut the ability of education policy to increase social mobility.” This chart below (Figure 1.4) shows that while the attainment gap narrowed between 2005-2010, it increased again the following year, and no doubt got even worse this year when many students from poorer backgrounds were very affected by the GCSE English grading fiasco. This chart below (Figure 1.5) is a sad reflection of the truth about students from poorer backgrounds, heavily out-performed by the wealthier peers at A* and A grade, while scoring vastly more “bottom” grades than them. At least they attained a grade; with Gove’s elitist EBacc, it’s obvious that many of them will leave school with virtually no qualifications at all.
Let’s leave the final words to this excellent report which says: “Policymakers have tended to rely on the intuitive assumption that ‘having better schools’ will be enough to break the link between poverty and attainment. This has been the logic driving schools policy for the past decade, including the introduction of academies under the previous Labour government and tougher inspections for ‘satisfactory schools’ brought in under the current Coalition government. But despite a sustained improvement in the quality of schools, the gap in achievement between rich and poor children remains large.”