Save the Children believes children’s backgrounds should not limit the opportunities they have in life. However, as things stand, children from poorer homes do worse educationally than their classmates.
Last year 34% of pupils on free schools achieved 5 good GCSEs, compared to 62% of better-off pupils.
We therefore supported the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) to carry out new data analysis into the achievement gap at GCSE level.
Outstanding schools alone aren’t enough
Firstly, the research found that school improvement strategies have a key role to play in closing the achievement gap, but on their own they will be insufficient.
Children from deprived areas would benefit most from more higher-quality schools (pupils from the 25% most deprived postcodes score on average 4Bs and 4Cs at GCSE in outstanding schools compared to an average of 4Cs and 4Ds in an inadequate school) but those from wealthier postcodes would also do better.
As a result, absolute scores would increase across the board but much of the achievement gap would remain. Even if every child attended an outstanding school the educational achievement gap between the wealthiest and poorest pupils would only be cut by a fifth.
In fact, the IPPR analysis shows that children from poorer backgrounds tend to perform worse than their wealthier peers, whether they’re in a strong or a weak school.
This shows that to close the gap we need to focus some of our efforts at pupils (rather than the institution) so that we close the achievement gap within each school.
The Pupil Premium could provide the sort of targeted interventions we need, but it must be spent on approaches that are proven to tackle low achievement.
Primary years are pivotal
Secondly the research found that around half of the achievement gap we see at GCSE level is already present by the time children enter secondary school.
This shows that the early years and primary schools have a pivotal role to play in closing the gap and that intensive catch-up programmes as children transition from primary to secondary schools should be available for pupils falling behind.
The conclusions are clear. School improvement strategies are vital because all children do better in high-quality schools and alongside raising overall performance they can also close some of the gap.
However, to close more of the gap we also need to focus some of our efforts on pupil-level interventions targeted at children from poor homes within every school.
The Pupil Premium is a good mechanism for this but the government must ensure the resources are spent on approaches that are proven to work.
Approximately half of the achievement gap we see at GCSE level is evident before those children entered secondary school.
We therefore need a whole-system approach to narrowing the gap that combines early years reforms with a focus on the primary and secondary years, and we must ensure intensive catch-up programmes are available at key points.