GCSEs expose increasing gap between rich and poor

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The Independent Online

The glaring gap between the performance of poor and richer pupils is exposed by figures from last year's GCSE exams released today.

They show that just over one in five children (21.1 per cent) on free school meals – a traditional indicator of poverty – obtain the Government's benchmark of five A* to C grade passes including maths and English. This compares to 49 per cent of those not on free school meals.

The statistics also show that the gap between pupils on free school meals and the rest of the school population increases as they pro-gress from primary school to the first three years of secondary schooling.

In 2002, the gap between the two groups in terms of reaching the required standard in English and maths in tests for 11-year-olds was 26 percentage points (richer) and 16 percentage points (poorer) respectively. When that same cohort took their national curriculum tests at 14, the gap was 27 points in each subject.

In addition, the statistics show that children from disadvantaged homes are far more likely to be persistent truants. Twelve per cent of pupils in secondary schools serving the country's most disadvantaged areas are likely to be regularly absent, compared to just 2 per cent in the least deprived. A persistent truant is defined as someone who has missed at least a fifth of their schooling – 63 sessions in a year.

Latest figures, from 2006, show that in the 10 per cent of schools with the most pupils taking free meals, 1,700 pupils were suspended for physical assault on an adult, compared with 210 in the 10 per cent of schools with the fewest pupils taking free school meals.

The figures are published at the same time as a study by the Bow Group shows that the number of children leaving school without even obtaining five GCSE passes at G (the lowest grade) is growing. Almost 90,000 pupils fell into this category this year – the highest figure since 1998, the report indicates. Overall, it shows that a million teenagers in the past decade have failed to achieve this benchmark.

The GCSE figures were published by the Conservatives, whose schools spokesman Michael Gove said: "It's a tragedy that the gap in achievement at school between the most disadvantaged children and the rest continues to grow.

"It is particularly stark in the first years of secondary school, when the effect of increasing problems with truancy and discipline are most acute. It is disproportionately the schools in the poorest areas that are worst affected and we must reverse this trend if we are to give all children the opportunity they deserve."

A spokesman for the Department for Children, Schools and Families said: "The Government is committed to improving pro-gress for every pupil regardless of their family background, income or other characteristics."

He added that the attainment gap in English tests for 11-year-olds had narrowed by four percentage points since 2003 and that "some 6,000 more free school meals pupils achieved five good GCSEs, including English and maths, than did so in 2003 – which means big improvements in their life chances for further and higher education and employment".

However, he added: "We are determined to narrow the gap further. This is why we are providing one-to-one tuition to lower attainers as part of a personalised learning package and why we are raising participation [in education or training] to 18."