Poorest students almost three years behind wealthy peers in UK, study finds

'Getting the right teachers into the most disadvantaged schools is the solution'

Eleanor Busby
Education Correspondent
Tuesday 23 October 2018 21:02 BST
Education secretary Damien Hinds launches campaign highlighting importance of early-years learning for social mobility

Poorer students in the UK are almost three full years behind their wealthier peers academically, a global report on social mobility has revealed.

Nearly half (46 per cent) of disadvantaged students attend schools where other children tend to be deprived – and these pupils are more likely to do worse than their peers in affluent schools.

Where poorer students attend advantaged schools, they are two and a half years ahead of those at disadvantaged schools, the study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) found.

In science, disadvantaged students in the UK fall almost three full school years behind their wealthier peers by the age of 15.

Poorer students are not performing as well in the UK as there are fewer high-quality teachers going into the schools serving disadvantaged youngsters across the country, a global expert has suggested.

Andreas Schleicher, the OECD’s director of education and skills, said that “poverty need not be destiny” as the poorest students in Estonia, Vietnam and Hong Kong still achieve strong learning outcomes.

And poorer students in some countries – such as Finland, Poland, Norway and Iceland – perform equally as well in disadvantaged schools as they do in advantaged schools, the OECD found.

On the UK, Mr Schleicher said: “Currently you have regressive teacher allocation where the schools in greater disadvantage face greater shortage of qualified teachers.”

He added: “Having more teachers is not the necessarily the solution, it’s getting the right teachers into the most disadvantaged schools and making it not just financially, but intellectually attractive for teachers to work in those circumstances, to build teachers’ careers around challenges.”

Countries that do well in closing the gap – such as Singapore, Japan, Finland and Estonia – are good at attracting talented teachers to schools in disadvantaged areas, Mr Schleicher suggested.

In contrast, some disadvantaged schools in the UK – which have a poor infrastructure and disciplinary climate – are less likely to recruit good teachers.

Mr Schleicher added that pupil premium funding in England – which is extra money to support disadvantaged youngsters – has not increased the quality of resources in schools.

“There are more teachers in those schools but actually when you look at the shortage among qualified teachers that is not translating,” he said.

Mr Schleicher added that tackling inequality in the UK had to begin in the early years.

“You level the playing ground in the early years. That’s where the foundations are being laid, shifting the focus from expansion and quantity to quality of early childhood education and care,” he said.

The report indicates more than two-thirds of the achievement gap observed at age 15 and about two-thirds of the gap among 25 to 29-year-olds was already seen among 10-year-olds.

Sir Peter Lampl, founder of the social mobility charity the Sutton Trust, told The Independent: “It is extremely worrying to see that poorer students are almost three years behind their better off peers in science.

“Our research has shown that there is a lack of qualified specialist science teachers in state schools, and that this shortfall is disproportionately affecting disadvantaged pupils. But education gaps open up early, and the focus in early years nursery provision should be on quality and not quantity.”

He added: “High quality teaching is the most important way to improve the attainment of disadvantaged pupils. Ensuring that pupils from all backgrounds have access to high quality teaching is crucial for social mobility.

“Teachers should be incentivised to work in schools with high levels of disadvantage. School admissions processes should be reviewed so more pupils from less well-off backgrounds have access to top schools. Improving the quality of teaching in all schools is vital.”

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The report also found that only 15 per cent of UK disadvantaged students are satisfied with their lives, do not suffer from test anxiety and feel socially integrated at school – which is less than the average (26 per cent) across all developed countries analysed.

This figure for “social and emotional resilience” is far below a number of countries including the Netherlands (50 per cent), Switzerland (43 per cent) and Finland (39 per cent), the OECD found.

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, called the report “alarming”.

He said: “Despite the improving standards in schools and two decades of sustained effort, narrowing the gap between richer and poorer students is taking too long.

“Rightly, schools are at the centre of the efforts that we make to narrow the gap. But it would be wrong to expect schools to solve the problem on their own. The issues that underpin inequality reach far beyond the school gates and exist throughout the communities that schools serve.”

Mr Whiteman added: “Cuts to local authority budgets have greatly reduced the sources of support for families on low incomes.

“Some of the areas where it is hardest to be socially mobile have suffered from decades of under-investment and shrinking opportunities for well-paid and highly skilled work. If we’re serious about improving equality in the UK we’ve got to look at all these factors. Schools can’t do it alone.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We want every child to grow up healthy, happy and able to reach their potential, no matter what their background.

“The attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers, as measured by the attainment gap index, has narrowed by at least 10 per cent since 2011, and we’re targeting extra support at the poorest areas of the country to raise standards in schools and attract great teachers. Earlier this year the education secretary also set out his plans to boost social mobility by improving education support for children before they start school.

"Through green paper proposals, we will provide significant additional resources for all schools to help identify mental health problems early and make sure young people have the right support when they need it. Alongside this we have committed to ensuring all children learn about mental wellbeing through the introduction of Health Education, which we intend to make compulsory in all schools.”

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