The achievement gap between poor students and their better-off classmates is as wide now as it was 20 years ago, according to a damning new report that says the coronavirus pandemic is likely to have widened educational inequality

The ground-breaking study, based on research carried out for the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) and funded by the Nuffield Foundation, found that disadvantaged pupils start school behind their more advantaged peers, and that these inequalities persist throughout the school years and beyond – eventually affecting profit.

The authors argue that there is compelling evidence that England’s education system is leaving too many young people behind, and despite decades of policy attention, there has been little change in the educational attainment gap between children from different backgrounds.

The report said: “Despite decades of policy attention, there has been little change in the ‘disadvantage gap’ in GCSE attainment over the past 20 years. ​While GCSE levels have been rising over time, 16-year-olds on free school meals are still around 27 percentage points less likely to get a good GCSE than their peers on less protected position”.

At the start of their education journey, only 57% of English pupils eligible for free school meals achieved a good level of development at the end of reception in 2019, compared to 74% of their more advantaged peers, the report found.

Failures are “baked in” at an early age, the authors say. Less than half of disadvantaged children achieved the expected level of achievement at the end of primary school, compared with almost 70% of their more advantaged peers. Of those who achieve at the expected level, only 40% of disadvantaged students get good GCSE grades in English and maths, compared to 60% of better-off students.

Perhaps the biggest failure of the education system, the report suggests, is that there is a lack of clear pathways and ‘second chances’ for those who leave school with low GCSEs, leaving millions of people disadvantaged throughout of life.

The report shows that the relationship between family background and achievement is not limited to the poorest, but educational performance improves as family income rises. Just over 10% of youngsters in middle-earning households got at least one A or A* grade at GCSE, compared with a third of pupils from the wealthiest tenth of households.

These inequalities lead to huge gaps in earnings, the report says, pointing out that at the age of 40, the average UK worker with a degree earns twice as much as someone with qualifications up to GCSE level or below.

“These challenges will become increasingly acute,” the report concludes. “The Covid-19 pandemic has put the education system under enormous strain, leading to a significant loss of learning overall and a significant increase in educational inequality.

“Perhaps even more damaging in the long term will be the social, emotional and behavioral consequences of the lack of classroom learning and formative experiences during lockdown.”

Imran Tahir, IFS research economist and author of the report, said: “We cannot expect the education system to bridge all the differences between children from different families. But the English system could do a lot better.

“If the government is to meet its mission of having 90% of students achieve the expected level at the end of primary school [as stated in its recent schools white paper]he should give priority to the education system and especially to the disadvantaged students in it.’

Bridget Phillipson, Shadow Education Secretary, said: “Nearly 12 years of Conservative governments have completely failed to tackle the inequalities in the education system that are failing our children and holding back young people’s opportunities and life chances.

“200,000 primary school children do not have access to a good or outstanding school, teachers are leaving our schools in record numbers, GCSE grades among children on free school meals are going backwards. The Tories are tinkering with school structures rather than improving children’s outcomes.’

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Heads, added: “Public policy is in a rut of meaningless targets, empty rhetoric and deplorable levels of funding.

“We need investment in early education, better support for schools facing the biggest challenges, funding for schools and post-16 education that matches the level of need, and a review of qualifications and curricula so they work well for everyone. students”.

A Department for Education spokesman said: “Since 2011, we have closed the attainment gap between disabled students and their peers at all stages of education right up until the pandemic, and the latest figures show that a record proportion of students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds are progressing to higher schools. education.

“As part of our work to increase opportunities for all, we have invested almost £5 billion to help young people recover from the impact of the pandemic – with more than 2 million tutoring courses now being started by students who need them most – together with the ambitious target of 90% of children graduating from primary school at the expected level in reading, writing and mathematics by 2030.’

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