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Disadvantaged pupils are facing a perfect storm as they await their GCSE results — and it’s about more than coronavirus

5 min read

Lockdown has only amplified existing inequalities in our education system. We need long-term, targeted solutions to tackle persistent disadvantage.

On the eve of the most controversial GCSE results day in recent history, a new report from Teach First report has highlighted the divide between disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged pupils in this country. 

As Chair of the Education Committee, I have always been committed to social justice and supporting left-behind children, and that mission is now more important than ever. 

Even before lockdown, progress towards closing the disadvantage gap was stalling. Teach First’s finding that just 45% of disadvantaged pupils are achieving a pass at GCSE Maths and English (compared with 72% of non-disadvantaged pupils) is deeply troubling. 

That this divide has remained unchanged for the last three years is a sad indicator of the persistency of the obstacles facing young people from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The postcode lottery clearly influences a pupil’s chances of achieving the grades they need and deserve

Equally concerning is the disparity in outcomes around the country. We see disadvantaged pupils being left behind wherever we look. 

The gap is widening in five out of 10 regions in England. Pass rates for disadvantaged pupils in London, while still lagging as much as 15 percentage points behind their peers, remain far higher than in other regions. The postcode lottery clearly influences a pupil’s chances of achieving the grades they need and deserve.

We know the impact this has on young people’s life chances. Missing a pass at English GCSE increases by a third the chance that a student will drop out of education before they are 18.Over their lifetime, missing out on five good GCSEs can cost someone an average of £100,000. 

To break the cycle of social injustice and persistent disadvantage, we must close this gap.

However, this year that challenge suddenly became much harder. Lockdown has been difficult for everyone, but the Education Committee has heard only too often how the loss of learning will hit already disadvantaged children hardest.

This is a long-term problem which was hiding in plain sight in GCSE results before this year’s extraordinary events

Disadvantage during lockdown manifests itself in many ways. An increasing reliance on remote learning has been problematic. A TeacherTapp survey in March 2020 showed that only 2% of teachers in the most disadvantaged schools believed their pupils had adequate access to digital devices. The Sutton Trust’s submission to  the Committee’s inquiry highlighted other factors, including the capacity of schools to set work remotely and the variability of access to tuition. 

Add to this ongoing controversy and uncertainty over how the standardisation and appeals process will affect disadvantaged groups, as highlighted in the Education Committee’s report ‘Getting the grades they've earned: Covid-19: the cancellation of exams and 'calculated' grades’, and something of a perfect storm emerges for disadvantaged pupils.

We can’t yet know exactly what the pandemic’s impact will be on the disadvantage gap, but evidence so far signals that it’s likely to widen. The Education Endowment Foundation have suggested that the pandemic will erase the last decade of progress towards narrowing it. The impact on individual pupils, their families, and our society, will be huge. 

I sincerely hope that the Government’s support mechanisms, from providing devices to the most disadvantaged, to continuing the free school meals voucher scheme over the summer holidays, achieve their aim of mitigating the worst of this. 

The £1billion catch-up fund is particularly welcome and something which I campaigned for. However, Teach First’s research shows that lockdown did not create the gap between the haves and the have-nots. Instead, it amplified existing inequalities.

This is a long-term problem which was hiding in plain sight in GCSE results before this year’s extraordinary events. It requires a long-term, targeted solution to tackle the persistent disadvantage evidenced by this report.

The catch-up fund, though welcome, is a one-off boost, the majority of which will go to schools on the basis of pupil numbers, not need. Alone, it will not reverse the impact of years of stagnating progress towards eliminating the disadvantage gap, on top of six months of school closures. 

The previous Education Committee called for a ten-year plan for school and college funding. As Teach First’s report makes clear, schools must be able to recruit and retain the highest calibre staff, and have the financial security to make long-term plans, if they are to prevent a lost generation of children after the pandemic.

This Government has made steps toward increasing school funding, and boosting teacher’s starting salaries, but there is a long road ahead to eliminate the disadvantage gap. 

My fellow Committee members and myself wish all young people receiving their results tomorrow the very best, and we sincerely hope you get the results you deserve.

We will continue do all we can in our scrutiny role to hold the Department for Education to account, both for its handling of the pandemic, and for how it acts to ensure our education system leaves no-one behind

Robert Halfon is the Conservative MP for Harlow and chair of the Education Select Committee

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