Global gaps

Report Overview

This report draws on the 2015 OECD PISA scores to analyse the gaps in attainment between the top performers in the poorest and best off groups of UK children. Focusing on highly able 16 year olds across the four nations of the UK, it looks at overall performance and socio-economic gaps over time in reading, mathematics and science, in an international context of 38 OECD countries. The report reveals that while England’s highest achievers consistently score above the OECD average across the three subjects, bright but poor pupils lag behind their better-off classmates by around two years and eight months of schooling.

Written by John Jerrim, this report shows that such substantial gaps are in fact typical throughout the developed world, with England and Scotland about average in this respect. While Wales and Northern have substantially lower socio-economic gaps, this reflects the overall worse performance of their brightest students, in particular those from better-off backgrounds. The report also shows that, in England, the socio-economic attainment gap in science and reading performance is greater for girls than it is for boys, standing at around three years of schooling, eight months greater than the gap for boys. The report concludes with calls for the government to establish a ‘highly able’ fund to support the prospects of high attainers in comprehensive schools.

Key Findings

  • England has some of the best young scientists anywhere in the world. Able children from poor backgrounds in England also perform comparatively well on the PISA science test; in only Finland and Estonia do the highest-achieving poor children perform significantly better in science than in England.
  • However, bright but poor pupils in England and Scotland (in the top 10% of achievement nationally, but the lowest quarter socio-economically) are substantially behind bright well-off pupils – a gap of around 2 years and 8 months, around the OECD average.
  • Across the three subjects of science, mathematics and reading, the socio-economic gap is smaller in Wales and Northern Ireland. However, this reflects the comparatively weak performance amongst the top socio-economic group, particularly in Wales, rather than any outstanding level of achievement among academically able pupils from low socio-economic status homes.
  • The gap is particularly big for girls in science and reading: bright but poor girls lag 3 years behind bright but better-off girls in science in England. This is 8 months greater than the equivalent gap for boys.
  • There has been little sign of improvement in PISA scores for the highly able across the UK since 2006, with declines seen in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in some subjects.


  1. More schools, particularly in urban areas, should take the opportunity where they are responsible for their own admissions to introduce random allocation (ballots) or banding to ensure that a wider mix of pupils has access to the most academically successful comprehensives. Reducing the emphasis on geographical proximity will allow fairer access to the best schools and limit socially divisive incentives for house buying and gaming the system. Ballots can ensure a wider mix of pupils have the possibility of attending the best schools, and banding can help to secure school intakes reflecting a wide range of ability. With school accountability measurement changing to a ‘value added’ approach, this reduces the incentives for admissions policies biased towards high prior attainment, and provides an opportunity for a change of emphasis in this regard.
  2. Banding is most effective when a co-operative agreement can be reached between schools in an area. Local co-ordination could be achieved through a local admissions forum, or brokered through the local authority. Groups of schools should thus be encouraged to develop a shared approach to admissions.
  3. Ballots can be used in conjunction with catchment areas to improve the diversity of intake. One way of using random allocation, while making sure that those who live very close to schools are not unduly disadvantaged, could be to introduce both ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ catchment areas. However, using either banding or ballots in isolation may be more effective than using both in combination.
  4. Information availability and willingness to go the extra mile often has significant effects on access to better schools. The Government should find ways – working with community groups, consumer agencies and businesses that are successful in working class communities – to make it easier for all parents to access a range of information to facilitate informed choice-making over their children’s education. This is particularly important with the implementation of the new accountability measures and imminent changes to GCSE grading.
  5. It is particularly important that parents are aware not just of the school choices available, but of their rights to free transport to a choice of three schools within six miles of their home (or up to 15 miles for faith schools) if their child is eligible for Free School Meals.
  6. Faith Schools need to look at their recruitment of disadvantaged pupils. The government has mooted lifting the restrictions on the proportion of pupils new faith schools can select on the basis of religious faith (currently 50%). As our report demonstrates, faith schools are already among the most socially selective of schools, and lifting this restriction is likely to make them even more unrepresentative of their local areas, reducing the number of good school places available to pupils across the socio-economic spectrum. The admissions process for faith schools should instead be opened up so that their admissions are fairer and begin to reflect their local population, while maintaining their ethos.
February 9, 2017