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Why have educational attainment gaps not closed in 20 years?

This year's GCSE and A-Level results show how failure is baked into the education system.

By Harry Clarke-Ezzidio

The key, though perhaps unsurprising, takeaway from this summer’s GCSE and A-level results was that the attainment gap in grades achieved by students in the south versus those in the north is growing.

Though grades are down overall in comparison to the past two years – where results were based on teachers’ assessments, due to the Covid-19 pandemic – disparities between the north and south have widened since 2019, the last uninterrupted school year. For grade 7 passes at GCSE (equivalent to an A mark), the difference between the north-east and London has increased from 9.3 percentage points in 2019 to 10.2.

This year’s A-level results also reveal a north-south divide, with London having a 12.1 percentage point rise in the number of students achieving top grades, while the north-east had a 7.8 percentage point increase

Ahead of both sets of results being released, research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) found that the attainment gap between students from disadvantaged backgrounds and their better-off classmates has not closed over the past 20 years. Failure is “baked in” from early in the school system, the report says.

In August, the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, Schools North East, and the education charity Shine penned a joint open letter to Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss, urging them to make “fixing the north-south educational divide an economic priority”. “Children here [in the north] are just as bright,” the letter said, “just as talented, so what is going wrong and what can we do to fix it?” 

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“There are quite pervasive geographical differences in GCSE attainment and A-level attainment,” Imran Tahir, a co-author of the recent IFS report, told Spotlight. “Firstly, there's a huge resource gap between children who attend private schools and those who attend state schools – and that resource gap has doubled over the past decade, which is quite a striking statistic.”

Tahir argues that funding for both primary and secondary schools has got “less progressive over time”. The IFS report notes that despite spending increases in the past few years, overall education spending as a share of national income is no higher than in the early 2000s.

[See also: The government is only offering a sticking plaster on energy costs]

“What that means for educational attainment is that the resources that type of funding gets you – teachers, and equipment that secures the [ability] to learn – have decreased,” Tahir said. “I think, in part, that it’s made addressing the inequalities between children who attend schools in better-off areas versus those who are more disadvantaged far more difficult.”

While educational policy has historically focused on closing the achievement gap between better-off students and their peers across the board, the current Conservative government, through its levelling-up agenda, is focusing on ending regional disparities. In its levelling-up white paper the government outlined its ambition for 90 per cent of children in England to meet expected standards in reading and writing (the current figure is 65 per cent).

That pledge, in addition to the commitment for all children to be taught in a school in, or in the process of joining, a multi-academy trust, coupled with extra funding, among other proposals, form the schools white paper, announced in March. Will these pledges be enough to narrow the gap?

It will take more than boosting funding for schools, Tahrir said: “It's not just what happens in school that matters for children's attainment; it's also what happens at home, with their family and their background. If we want to answer why exactly these attainment gaps seem to persist… we’ve got to think more holistically about what's happening in society."

Andria Zafirakou, the British secondary school teacher who won the million-pound Global Teacher Prize in 2018, agrees that schools cannot be the only focus in discussing attainment gaps.

“Now that we are having a huge crisis in terms of the cost of living, we're going to be picking this up in schools,” Zafirakou told Spotlight. “We're going to see kids coming in with dirty shirts, not well-fed, not sleeping well because of the stresses at home – and this will have a huge impact on attainment.”

She bemoans the real-terms stagnation of funding for schools, which, amid soaring societal costs, will see institutions struggle.

“We are going to, as always, be problem-solving and trying to work miracles,” Zafirakou said. "We do this with little help, acknowledgement or support. And it’s almost like [the societal attitudes are]: ‘It's your problem – you guys fix it, it’s your job'.”

[See also: The Tories don’t believe in the right to a decent standard of living, says former UN rapporteur]

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