Highly able pupils (the top 10%) in the most deprived state schools on average achieve half a grade less per GCSE than highly able pupils in the most advantaged schools, new research from the Sutton Trust has found. The report suggests that these differences are due to a number of factors associated with advantaged schools, including a ‘peer effect’ by which pupils benefit from being educated with other pupils with high levels of attainment, and low levels of deprivation.

The study, which examined the results of 555,000 pupils who took GCSEs in England in 2006, finds that students attending the poorest schools were much more likely to take vocational qualifications than pupils in the most advantaged schools. Highly able pupils attending the most deprived schools were ten times more likely in 2006 to take an intermediate GNVQ than highly able pupils in the most advantaged schools.

The report also identifies a ‘hidden poor’ – over 40,000 pupils eligible for Free School Meals earlier in their schooling, but who are currently ignored in the Government’s official statistics on the attainment gap between disadvantaged and advantaged students. Including these would boost the proportion of students classified as disadvantaged in schools from 14% to 22% of the total.

Dr Lee Elliot Major, research director at the Sutton Trust, said: “Quite rightly every parent wants to know whether their son or daughter will progress at the same pace given the overall social make-up of their school. This report suggests there are significant differences, so we need to ensure that schools with the most deprived intakes get the support they need to boost achievement, and that where-ever possible we have balanced pupil intakes so that the positive peer effect is shared around and we don’t have extreme pockets of affluence and deprivation.

“We also need to make sure pupils get access to high quality, impartial advice and guidance so they can make informed decisions about their futures. Vocational pathways should not be seen as inferior to academic qualifications; but a pupil should be no more likely to opt for a practical course in a disadvantaged school than in an advantaged one.”

Dr Philip Noden, research fellow at the Education Research Group at the London School of Economics, who carried out the research, said: “This is an attainment gap that needs to be closed so that parents know their children will make good progress whatever the social mix of the school they attend. The difference in GCSE results between the most and least advantaged schools is disguised by the popularity of vocational qualifications in the most deprived schools. So in trying to close the gap it is important that schools don’t limit access to academic qualifications for those pupils who would benefit from them.”

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