The attainment gap, the gap in school exam results between pupils from different social backgrounds, is one of the key challenges in our education system. Differences in school achievement act as a block on social mobility and have real consequences for the life chances of those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Children with poor vocabulary age five are more than twice as likely to be unemployed aged 34. Such differences are not just social in origin, they are also geographical.
It was for this reason that the All-Party Parliamentary Group’s inquiry into the regional attainment gap across England was initiated in late 2017. We find ourselves an increasingly divided country; divided by politics, by life prospects, but also divided geographically. The inquiry sought to explore the origins of differences in school outcomes between areas, what efforts have been made to close the gap, along with what we can learn from best practice across the country and how it could be shared and implemented.
Disadvantaged pupils nationally lag behind the average by around half a grade per subject, but those in London perform about the same as the average student nationally. Disadvantaged pupils in the North East had the lowest scores, but there is not a simple north/south divide, with the South East and South West both performing poorly for their disadvantaged pupils. The South East has an attainment gap twice the size of Inner London.
Sense of place and collaboration
- The London Challenge was very successful because it bought together local players who had a vested interest in improving local outcomes. Some of this success was replicated in Somerset and Manchester, but there was less buy-in from national government and so the schemes were mostly locally supported. Buy-in both at a national and local level is important and allows local areas to interpret and shape national policy in a way that works for them.
- Whilst there are pockets of local collaboration across the country, sharing best practice consistently and widely is more challenging. Facilitating the sharing of best practice is key to local improvement.
- School funding has a larger impact on disadvantaged pupils and can make a significant difference to their achievement at school.
- There remain questions around whether schools were using their funding effectively, however, with particular issues around spending of the pupil premium.
Teacher recruitment and retention
- Disadvantaged young people are more likely to be taught by teachers who are less experienced and have lower qualifications. A young person in the most affluent schools is 22 percentage points more likely to be taught physics by someone who has a degree in physics or related subject than a young person in a disadvantaged school.
- Recruitment and retention of teachers is a bigger challenge in the most disadvantaged schools and geographical areas with higher levels of deprivation. The lack of opportunities for continuing professional development (CPD) is a particular issue when it comes to retaining teachers.
The role of early years
- The inquiry heard how children hold on to the gains that they make in early years education throughout their lives, making them better learners and therefore progressing further.
- Current government policy has shifted the focus from good quality early years education to a focus on providing childcare to enable parents to work. This is affecting the quality of early years settings.
- Local authorities should harness a sense of place through stronger collaboration across the whole system (including between schools, universities, local services, businesses etc). This should be done by providing additional funding to cold-spot areas so that they can take on the role of local coordinators in driving school improvement and supporting schools to work with one another.
- In order to be rated as Outstanding, schools must highlight that they are collaborating with other schools in the local area and Ofsted must recognise and evaluate this in their inspections.
Teacher recruitment and retention
- The Government should incentivise school collaboration by repurposing the Pupil Premium into a new Social Mobility Premium which schools and senior leaders can use on initiatives to improve social mobility in deprived schools and coldspot areas. For example, this could be used on teacher recruitment and retention in specific subject shortage areas, CPD for teachers, mentoring and peer to peer support.
- The Government should follow through on their ambitious new recruitment and retention strategy and support schools in social mobility coldspot areas to offer a more generous financial incentive, combined with a strong offer of additional professional development to teachers to encourage them to take up positions there.
- The Government should complete the long-promised review of the children’s centre programme and publish a reinvigorated National Strategy on children’s centres in 2019. The Government should also ringfence funding for children’s centres and ensure that they are able to reconnect with their original purpose, focusing on the 0-5 age range.
- The government should move towards giving early years teachers Qualified Teacher Status, with the increase in pay, conditions and status this would entail, and should invest in improving qualifications for all practitioners in the sector. A dedicated funding pot, similar to the old Graduate Leader Fund, is important to achieving this.