Government must throw ‘kitchen sink’ at schools’ catch-up as GCSE results show ‘worrying’ divide

Keir Starmer says he’s ‘astonished’ Gavin Williamson remains in post as education secretary

Ashley Cowburn
Political Correspondent
Thursday 12 August 2021 21:22
Nick Gibb Defends Education Secretary As Students Collect Gcse Results M198431 (1)

The government must throw the “kitchen sink” at education catch-up, as GCSE grades showed a “worrying” divide between state and private schools and those on free school meals and their more privileged peers, experts have warned.

On a day in which the proportion of pupils awarded top marks soared to a record high, Sir Keir Starmer also raised the alarm over widening education inequality, saying he was “astonished” Gavin Williamson remained in post as education secretary.

While grade inflation was not as pronounced as the A-Level results on Tuesday, 28.9 per cent of GCSE entries were awarded one of the top three grades under the teacher-based assessments – up 2.7 percentage points on last year.

But the data from Ofqual showed that poorer pupils in England, who are eligible for free school meals, dropped further behind their privileged peers, with a slight widening of the “long-standing gap”.

The exams regulator pointed to the “uneven impact” of the Covid crisis for the increasing divide, as independent schools in England also saw the largest absolute increase in the top grades compared with other schools and colleges.

Published on Thursday morning, the results showed that 61 per cent of entries from private schools were awarded a grade 7 or higher – compared with 57 per cent in 2020 and 47 per cent in 2019 when exams were last used.

For secondary comprehensives, however, just 26.1 per cent of entries were awarded the top three grades, which was slightly above the 23.7 per cent in the summer of 2020 and 18.4 per cent in 2019. A separate Labour analysis suggested the gap between state and private schools had increased by nearly a fifth in the last four years.

The figures also displayed a slight widening in the divide between the attainment of boys and girls, with the latter pulling further ahead amid the rise in top grades this year.

Data from the Joint Council for Qualification showed the gap between boys and girls achieving top three marks increased from 7.8 per cent in 2020 to almost 9 per cent this academic year. Almost 33 per cent of entries from girls were awarded the highest three grades – compared to 24.1 per cent for boys.

Reacting to the results, Sir Keir warned Boris Johnson that the levels of educational inequality in Britain were “unforgivable” and demanded the resignation of the education secretary amid speculation the prime minister may replace him.

“The net result is that the gap between those at private schools and state schools has got bigger and when inequality goes up in education then it is pretty astonishing the education secretary is still in post,” the Labour leader said.

“If he won’t resign, the prime minister should get rid of him. When you have a chaotic approach to education that ends up with more inequality, rather than less inequality, something is going very wrong”.

Earlier, the schools minister, Nick Gibb, told BBC Breakfast that those from the least privileged backgrounds were hit the hardest by the Covid pandemic, admitting it was “not acceptable”.

Speaking to The Independent, Carl Cullinane, the associate director of research and policy and the Sutton Trust charity, said the “most worrying aspect” of the GCSE results were the widening gap between state and private schools and also the increase in the gap between free schools meals pupils and their peers.

Asked whether the figures could get worse in coming years, he replied: “That’s absolutely the concern. Next year’s cohorts will have also faced two years of disruption, but they be facing a full set of exams next year which will be challenging for everyone concerned. These impacts are not going to go away easily.”

Referring to the resignation of Sir Kevan Collins – the government’s former education tsar – over catch-up funding for pupils whose learning was disrupted during the crisis, he added: “I think we would need to see much greater levels of investment because we’re facing a generational level challenge in the education system if we’re going to prevent long-term impacts on this generation of young people’s lives we need to invest now and quickly in terms of helping them to catch-up.

“It’s a hugely challenging task for schools who have had a very difficult 18 months, but I think as Kevan said repeatedly we need to be throwing everything at it, we need to be throwing the kitchen sink at it in the next year and multiple years in the future.”

Sammy Wright, a member of the government’s Social Mobility Commission, told The Independent that while he was concerned about the widening gap, it came as “absolutely no surprise”.

“The gap between disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged students has widened at every level,” he said. “It’s really clear and again it was entirely obvious, Covid has impacted on the education of young people much more heavily, pretty much in direct relationship to their level of disadvantage.”

Mr Wright, who is also a deputy headteacher, added: “Where there is money to soften the blow, kids have coped better.

“In terms of where we go from that, I’m both frustrated and hopeful. I think that we could have easily made some decisions beforehand because this was so predictable, but I think there is still time to put in place a couple of really straightforward things because this is a long-term problem, this is going to go on for years to come.”

Asked whether the growing divides should be a wake-up call for the government, Mr Wright replied: “Absolutely, absolutely.”

Jon Andrews, the head of analysis at the Education Policy Institute, said there were multiple reasons behind the gaps in GCSE grades between disadvantaged pupils and their peers this year.

“We know that even before the pandemic hit the education system, the gap in school attainment between poorer and more affluent pupils was already over 18 months of learning progress at GCSE level and this was starting to widen.

“These existing inequalities will have been reflected in today’s results, but we also know that pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds suffered the most during the pandemic.

“When it came to lockdowns and remote learning, poorer pupils were far more likely to lack access to technology or home environments that were conducive to learning. Pupils in disadvantaged areas were also more likely to be absent from school due to covid-related reasons. As result, our research has shown that disadvantaged pupils have lost more months of learning during the pandemic compared to their better off peers.”

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