Improved GCSE results disguise a fail for Theresa May

The attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers is widening again. 

NS

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Glance at the headlines about GCSE results today and you’ll see a picture of success. “Pass rates and top grades edge upwards,” notes the BBC. “Girls fare better than boys under more rigorous courses,” reports the Guardian (the proportion of boys obtaining top grades went up, too, before you start…). “Hundreds achieve clean sweep of top grades,” says the Times. “Top grades on the rise despite new tougher exams,” announces the Telegraph.

Positive news then, eh? Cherry Lambrini and fake IDs at the ready!

Well, not quite. The problem is that these cheery headlines disguise the long tail of Theresa May’s utter failure as prime minister to achieve her aims.

As I reported at time of her resignation, one of the many “burning injustices” she pledged to solve when reaching No 10 was that: “If you’re a white, working-class boy, you’re less likely than anybody else in Britain to go to university.”

Yet when she left office, more than half of England’s universities had fewer than 5 per cent poor white students in their intakes, according to National Education Opportunities Network analysis in 2019, and the number of white university applicants continues to fall. The progression rates for white young people on free school meals into higher education were 17.6 per cent for girls and 12.2 per cent for boys in 2016/17.

Just last month, the Education Policy Institute revealed that the disadvantage attainment gap has stopped narrowing, and that poorer pupils in general are around 18 months behind their more advantaged peers in progress at GCSE level. The most persistently disadvantaged pupils are now almost two years behind by the time they finish their GCSEs, in what the think tank described as “a major setback for social mobility”.

It remains to be seen whether this is a turning point, heralding a further widening of the disadvantage attainment gap in GCSEs. But last month’s findings should not be forgotten beneath positive government statements this results day.

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.