Strong evidence that Labour narrowed the attainment gap but now it's widening again...

Francis Gilbert's picture
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.”

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Roger Titcombe's picture
Thu, 27/12/2012 - 22:44

Oh dear, this is more of the rich/poor attainment gap fallacy. School attainment is much more strongly predicted by mean intake Cognitive Ability Test (CAT) scores than any socio-economic indicator. This can only be shown in LA areas that apply CAT tests to all pupils such as Cumbria and Hackney. My Hackney study (so far unpublished) shows that when nationally representative CAT score intake distributions are selected from poor communities the socio-economic 'disadvantage' largely disappears (but not vice-versa). Labour's 'narrowing of the gap' was achieved by giving kids from poorer communities an easier, non challenging, C grade equivalent generating alternative curriculum, thus doubly disadvantaging them by denying them a cognitively developmental education while saddling them with largely useless qualifications. Mossbourne Academy is to be praised for its deprivation-blind comprehensive approach and thanks to Hackney's CAT driven, LA wide admissions system, other schools in the borough, LA and academies, are becoming equally successful.

I know its hard for many on the left to swallow but the true teaching challenge is getting kids of all abilities to understand and be inspired by cognitively challenging concepts, not aiming for uniform C grade GCSE attainment. The barrier to cognitive development for pupils is not poverty but degraded curriculum resulting from league table pressures to maximise C grade success. This is the cause of the real international decline captured by PISA and other studies.

This is what my New Statesman Article is about.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 28/12/2012 - 09:56

Roger - you are correct that the excessive emphasis on raw exam results has negative effects: teaching to the test, 'gaming', marginalising certain subjects and ignoring non-cognitive skills (OECD Economic Review UK 2011). And a report by the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) in 2011 confirmed this: league tables encourage “undesirable behaviours” by schools which could have a negative impact on pupils.

The IFS report also stated what seems blindingly-obvious but is so often ignored when the “no excuses” mantra is repeated: intake has a strong effect on outcomes. IFS found the highest-scoring schools are largely those that already had the highest-achieving pupils when they entered secondary education:

That said, it’s well-known that London schools are generally more successful than schools outside London. This success has been attributed to the London Challenge which relied on, among other things, collaboration, co-operation between schools, support and strong, consistent leadership.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 28/12/2012 - 10:13

Francis - after the Coalition introduced its academy conversion/free schools programme the OECD acknowledged that this would increase choice BUT the policy would have to be carefully monitored to ensure it didn't adversely affect the already-disadvantaged.

The OECD also found that the most successful school systems tend to be the most equitable. It advised that money should be targeted particularly on those who needed it most - the Pupil Premium, OECD acknowledged, was a step in the right direction. Money targeted at the Early Years also improved equity.

Yet cutbacks have caused many SureStart centres to close, and Gove cut funding to BookStart which gave free books to pre-schoolers. At the same time, Gove overspent £1billion on the Academy programme when there is no evidence that academy status improves results.

And introducing market forces into education reduces equity:

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Fri, 28/12/2012 - 22:55

If schools with disadvantaged kids could focus on getting those kids out into the real world into careers and with the ability to cope with life they could surpass kids from advantaged backgrounds.

They only fail because they're tested according to their ability to please politicians rather than in the things which are actually important.

FJ Murphy's picture
Sun, 30/12/2012 - 17:41

I doubt if two years is long enough to affect grades, but it doesn't surprise me that you think it's all Michael Gove's fault. Hatred of Mr G is truly obsessional on LSN.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Sun, 30/12/2012 - 17:43

Could you give me an example of that hatred Finbar?

FJ Murphy's picture
Sun, 30/12/2012 - 17:54

Good grief! Five minutes perusing LSN comments and views and you'll find a distinct lack of love for Mr G.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Sun, 30/12/2012 - 20:10

Personally I find most people are concerned about his skills in consulting and developing his policies to be fit for purpose. I don't think those concerns are to do with hate or love.

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