Tuesday, 25 September 2012

A long division: closing the attainment gap in England's secondary schools

a research paper by Jonathan Clifton and Will Cook (IPPR) published by Institute for Public Policy Research (September 2012)


This paper investigates the role schools can play in ensuring all children get a fair start in life. The issue of social mobility has risen up the political agenda in recent years, amid concerns that the opportunities provided by over a decade of economic growth have been too narrowly concentrated among a few groups in society. A series of reports has highlighted Britain’s low levels of social mobility, showing how children from poorer backgrounds struggle to gain access to university, enter professional jobs and earn decent wages (see Milburn 2012, Sutton Trust 2011, Blanden et al 2005). This in turn means disadvantage can become entrenched across the generations.

Low levels of social mobility are rooted in wider changes to the British economy since the 1970s, following the loss of decent jobs at the bottom of the labour market, the professionalisation of jobs at the top of the labour market, and an increase in income inequality, which have all combined to make it harder for people to climb the ladder of opportunity (Duncan and Murnane 2011). A concerted effort will be required in a number of policy areas to address this problem, but education can play a crucial role. A high level of education has become more important for getting a decent job over the past 30 years, meaning those families which are unable to invest in education are left further behind (Lindley and Machin 2012). Education can provide access to many opportunities later in life, and schools can help to create a level playing field for young people as they start out.

The government, in particular, has turned to schools to try and solve this problem, producing a social mobility strategy that focuses heavily on the academic performance of poorer pupils (Clegg 2012). It has introduced a number of policies designed to raise the achievement of pupils from deprived areas, including converting failing schools into academies, reforming the accountability system to put more pressure on weaker schools to improve, and allocating an additional sum of money, known as the ‘pupil premium’, to schools that teach children from poorer homes. Government ministers have expressed a desire to close the ‘stubborn’ gap in achievement at GCSE level that exists between children from deprived areas and their wealthier peers (Gove 2012).

This paper uses original analysis of the latest data available from the National Pupil Database to assess the challenge the government has set itself. It explores the role that schools can play in tackling the link between educational achievement and family income. The first half of the paper sets out the scale of the challenge, and puts the issue in context by comparing how the achievement gap – or, as it is often known, the attainment gap in England has changed over time and in relation to other countries. The second half of the paper examines the nature of the gap in achievement, and argues for the use of targeted interventions as well as wider ‘school improvement’ policies. The paper concludes by modelling the impact that the government’s flagship policy in this area, the pupil premium, might have on the achievement gap, and sets out what it would take to reach the government’s aim of closing it for good.

This paper is concerned with the specific question of what official data sources can reveal about the size and nature of the achievement gap, and how this can inform the design of current government policies. A more comprehensive book, in which leading academics will propose new policy ideas to break the link between poverty and educational achievement, will be published by IPPR later in the year.

Full text (PDF 50pp)

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