Another day and another report dumbs down the root causes of education inequality

A child in education
Steve Topple

A report into how the educational attainment gap between rich and poor pupils is widening has received a lot of attention. But from education experts to the Labour Party, the responses to the analysis have been flaccid at best – swerving between blaming Tory education policy to calling for more money for schools. It would seem that the obvious answer to poor children’s educational disadvantage is a bit too radical for 2020: couldn’t we just end poverty?

The ‘learning gap’

The Education Policy Institute (EPI) has published its annual report. It looks at the variance in educational achievement across primary and secondary schools for rich and poor children. Overall, it found that improvement in the situation has, in some cases, stalled. And in other areas the rich / poor gap is getting worse.

In its analysis, the EPI considers “disadvantaged” pupils to be those who’ve had Free School Meals at any point in the past six years. It found that the learning gap between those pupils and their non-disadvantaged peers was:

  • 4.6 months for reception age groups.
  • 9.3 months at primary school.
  • 18.1 months at secondary school.

The report noted:

The disadvantage gap in England has stopped closing, and there are now several strong indications that it has started to widen

But drilling down further into the data, the EPI found that for some groups of pupils, the situation was even worse.

Persistent poverty

The report said:

Children with a high persistence of poverty (those on free school meals for over 80% of their time at school) have a learning gap of 22.7 months ‒ twice that of children with a low persistence of poverty (those on free schools meals for less than 20% of their time at school), who have a learning gap of 11.3 months.

Progress in closing the gap has been slowest for pupils with a high persistence of poverty, with the gap remaining much the same after almost a decade. Disadvantaged pupils with lower persistence of poverty have also experienced worsening gaps, although to a lesser degree.

In other words, it used to be just the persistently poorest pupils who had a large learning gap. Now, the gap is also “worsening” for less-disadvantaged, but still poor, children. Also, the number of children with a “high persistence of poverty” is rising.

Geographical and ethnic constraints

The EPI found that in some areas of England, pupils’ learning gap was higher than others. For example, it noted:

In some areas, poorer pupils are over two full years of education behind their peers by the time they take their GCSEs, including in Blackpool (26.3 months), Knowsley (24.7 months) and Plymouth (24.5 months).

In contrast, there are very low GCSE disadvantage gaps concentrated in London, including in Ealing (4.6 months), Redbridge (2.7 months) and Westminster (0.5 months).

The analysis also found that ethnicity played a role in the learning gap. Gypsy / Roma, Irish Traveller and Black Caribbean pupils had the highest [pdf, p20] gaps versus their white British peers. But the EPI report had its flaws, one of which it admitted.

Nothing is quite as it seems

The EPI analysis noted:

This year, for the first time, EPI researchers have also calculated the disadvantage gap at a local level after having controlled for high persistence of poverty in each area.

This reveals that differences in local demographics are essential to understanding why gaps are different in different parts of the country. Under this adjusted measure, many areas that currently rank as some of the worst in the country substantially improve their position once high persistent poverty levels are considered

In short, the research took into account the fact that many local authority areas have a lot of children living in poverty. Therefore, the learning gap the EPI calculates isn’t as bad as it could be – because more children are poor. Hackney is one example – where the EPI says [pdf, p30] that persistent poverty is through the roof, but the learning gap is one of the smallest. This fundamentally ignores thousands of children who, through no fault of their own or their parents, live in poverty in disadvantaged areas.

But moreover, the EPI report only looked at persistent poverty and the learning gap at local authority level. If you break it down further, then pockets of educational poverty emerge.

For example, Sutton has an adjusted rank [pdf, p30] of 126 out of 150 local authorities (150 being the smallest learning gap). But if you drill down into the most local measurements, pockets of education poverty exists. For example, a part of one area in Beddington South, Sutton is in the top 10% nationally for education deprivation – even though borough-wide the EPI says the learning gap is narrow.

This selective analysis from the EPI is reflected in the responses from the Labour Party and education professionals.

More money, better policy?

Shadow education secretary Kate Green said in a press release:

Even before the coronavirus pandemic began, the Conservatives were failing to give every young person the best start in life.

Progress in reducing inequality had ground to a halt, and the government has failed to support the most disadvantaged children while their schools were closed.

The repeated failures to close the attainment gap is a sign of the stark incompetence of a government that has spent the summer creating chaos with the exams fiasco instead of focusing on getting schools open.

In a tweet, she said Tory “education policies are failing disadvantaged children”. Meanwhile, general secretary of the National Association of Headteachers (NAHT) Paul Whiteman told the Guardian:

Schools were already struggling to provide everything children need before this crisis, damaged as they and other social services have been by a decade of austerity. If schools are to play their part in healing the scars left by Covid-19, be that educational, developmental or emotional, they will absolutely require additional support, funding and resources to do so.

Both these responses ignore the elephant in the room. That is, while education policy is important, it is ultimately poverty which is entrenching the learning gap.

The elephant in the room

Back in 2007, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) recognised the links between poverty and poor educational attainment. It noted that the poorest children’s feelings about school were markedly different from their richer peers.

For example, it said:

Poorer children… accepted that they were not going to get the same quality of schooling, or the same outcomes, as better-off children.

And:

Children in disadvantaged schools were very aware of all the costs and of the difficulties parents faced in finding as little as 50 pence or a pound for school events.

Also:

Children in disadvantaged schools were more likely to view education as a way of avoiding problems in the future.

Tinkering around the edges

The poorest children are aware, consciously or subconsciously, that the system and life’s odds are weighted against them. Food, health, income and time poverty for both parents and children all play a role in holding back educational attainment. And when a child is at an all-encompassing disadvantage to begin with, then in many cases no amount of school funding or education policy will change the outcome.

The EPI report is an interesting look at the rich / poor divide. But it’s little more than that, and doesn’t address the nationwide issues facing disadvantaged children overall. These have been compounded by a decade of austerity and welfare changes. Until the root causes of poverty (corporate capitalism and classist government attitudes) are addressed, then anything else is tinkering around the edges. Stop-gap approaches may help some disadvantaged pupils. But overall, generation after generation, too many will still be left behind.

Featured image via Pexels

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