This General Election policy briefing, the second in our new series of briefings ahead of the upcoming election, looks at the attainment gap – the gap in educational outcomes between students from more and less affluent backgrounds.

During the early 2010s, the gap across all school stages had been narrowing gradually. However, this progress stalled in 2017, before the pandemic altered the landscape considerably.  Since 2020, the attainment gap has widened notably, with 10 years of progress in closing the gap wiped out in just a few years.

While there has been broad support across the political spectrum for efforts to reduce the gap, it has not been a major issue in political debate. But the issue is a ticking time bomb for future social mobility.

This briefing outlines existing evidence on the attainment gap, including how it is measured, how it has changed over time, as well as the long-term impacts for both individuals and the wider economy. It also examines the underlying factors preventing lower income young people from meeting their potential, with recommendations on what the next government can do to work towards closing the gap for good.

  • Children from less well-off homes start school already behind their classmates, and gaps only widen further through primary and secondary school.
  • The attainment gap is caused by a wide variety of factors in the home and in schools, with many exacerbated by the recent pandemic and cost-of-living crises. In 2022, 56% of head teachers reported an increase in children coming to school hungry in the autumn term, with greater increases in more deprived areas.
  • Educational factors including inadequate school funding, uneven access to quality teaching, unfair admissions, school absence, and inequalities in access to private tuition are all likely to be contributing to the gap.
  • Recent years have seen a disproportionate negative impact on funding for schools serving deprived communities. In 2013, spending per pupil in both state primary and secondary schools in the most deprived areas was more than 30% greater than in the least deprived areas. By 2021 this had dropped to around 20%, due largely to reforms to the National Funding Formula.
  • Tutoring is a key method of boosting learning. There are significant socio-economic gaps in access to private tutoring. While these gaps have been levelled out by the National Tutoring Programme, with 27% of FSM pupils reporting they received tutoring from school in 2023, the NTP is set to be ended in 2024, removing a vital tool to address the attainment gap.
Closing the attainment gap: A ten point plan

A long-term, national strategy from government is needed to bring a renewed and explicit focus to closing the attainment gap.

The next government should:

  1. Reform the National Funding Formula to rebalance funding back towards schools serving the most disadvantaged communities.
  2. Reverse the real terms erosion of Pupil Premium funding restoring funding to previous levels.
  3. Extend the Pupil Premium to post-16 institutions. The attainment gap doesn’t end at 16, and neither should dedicated funding.
  4. Renew the National Tutoring Programme with ringfenced funding for the long-term and target it at disadvantaged pupils.
  5. Ensure no child is hungry in school by expanding free school meal eligibility to all children on Universal Credit, and increasing Breakfast Club provision.
  6. Tackle the teacher recruitment and retention crisis, and incentivise the best teachers to work in the most disadvantaged schools by making changes across the system, including enhancing financial incentives and increasing flexibility.
  7. Tackle pupil absence through evidence-based interventions with a particular focus on getting the most disadvantaged students back into the classroom.
  8. Reduce social segregation in schools by making admissions policies fairer including requiring schools to prioritise Pupil Premium applicants in their oversubscription criteria.
  9. Build evidence on, and scale up, the interventions that work for example through models like the Education Endowment Foundation accelerator fund.
  10. However, the education system alone cannot eradicate the attainment gap, so a true strategy would include a plan to reduce, and ultimately to end child poverty in the UK.