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Boris Johnson warned his ‘levelling up’ agenda at risk as drive to close gap between rich and poor pupils stalls

Boris Johnson warned his ‘levelling up’ agenda at risk as drive to close gap between rich and poor pupils stalls

The findings come as schools prepare to reopen after months of coronavirus restrictions.

4 min read

Boris Johnson’s vow to “level up” Britain is at risk because progress on closing the country’s educational attainment gap has stalled, a new report has warned.

The latest annual report from the Education Policy Institute finds that the gap between what poorer pupils and their richer peers achieve at school stopped closing even before the disruption of the coronavirus pandemic.

The researchers warn that disadvantaged pupils in England are now 18.1 months of learning behind their peers by the time they finish their GCSEs — the same gap as five years ago.

And disparities at primary school age are also widening for the first time since 2007.

The EPI’s research is based on data from the Department for Education, and defines disadvantaged pupils as those who have been eligible for free school meals at any point in the last six years.

“It is deeply concerning that our country entered the pandemic with such a lack of progress in this key area of social policy" - David Laws, Education Policy Institute

As well as the 18-month gap at secondary level, the study finds that poorer pupils are now 9.3 learning months behind their richer peers — a finding the EPI warns could represent a “turning point” from which disadvantage continues to widen.

The disadvantage gap for early years pupils in reception year stands at 4.6 months, largely the same level as in 2013.

The researchers also find that the proportion of pupils deemed as facing a “high persistence of poverty” — meaning they are on free school meals for over 80% of their time at school — is on the rise, climbing from 34.8% to 36.7%.

“This recent increase appears to be an important contributor to the lack of progress with the gap overall,” they say.

The problems are particularly acute in the North, West Midlands and parts of the South of England, the EPI says — with poorer pupils in Blackpool 26.3 years behind their richer peers.

In contrast, London’s Ealing, Redbridge and Westminster all register an attainment gap of less than five months.


Launching the findings, former Cabinet minister David Laws, the EPI’s executive chairman, said: “This report highlights that in spite of the government’s aspiration to 'level up' opportunity, the education gap between poor children and the rest is no longer closing, for the first time in around a decade.”

And he said: “Before the COVID crisis, disadvantaged children were around 1.5 years of learning behind other pupils, and this figure seems almost certain to have increased since the closure of schools.

“It is deeply concerning that our country entered the pandemic with such a lack of progress in this key area of social policy, and the government urgently needs to put in place new policy measures to help poor children to start to close the gap again.”

Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary Kate Green meanwhile seized on its findings to accuse the Government of “failing to give every young person the best start in life”.

The opposition frontbencher said: “Progress in reducing inequality had ground to a halt, and the government have 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. 
“It is time for them to get a grip, and ensure that every young person returns to education in September.” 

Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, argued that “years of austerity and cuts to local services” had worsened the problem.

“Cuts to school funding, a growing teacher recruitment and retention crisis and ever-increasing class sizes have a significant impact on a pupil’s experience in school,” he warned.

A government spokesperson said: "Our £1bn Covid catch-up package will tackle the impact of lost teaching time, including a £650m catch-up premium to help schools support all pupils and the £350m National Tutoring Programme for disadvantaged students.

"This includes up to £9m available for the Nuffield Early Language intervention programme to support those who have missed out on early education at an essential time for their development.”

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