From education to employment

Pupils’ attainment gap is a ticking time bomb for social mobility

students sat in classroom

Closing National Tutoring Programme will cut off vital support for poorer pupils.

Education and social mobility experts at the Sutton Trust have warned politicians that inequalities in education are a ticking time bomb for social mobility and social cohesion, unless there is a renewed focus on tackling the attainment gap. 

The difference in education outcomes between low-income students and their better-off peers – known as the attainment gap – has widened considerably since the pandemic, wiping out a decade of progress.

The gap decreased slightly during the early 2010s, before progress stalled prior to the pandemic. However, the disruption to learning caused by COVID-19 saw the gap widen drastically again to levels not seen since 2011.

The Trust warns these inequalities will worsen without decisive action to navigate the perfect storm of the ongoing cost of living crisis, high rates of persistent absence and the related surge in mental health issues among pupils.

The attainment gap is caused by a wide variety of factors in the home and in schools. One important factor is the greater access to private tutoring enjoyed by middle-class pupils. New Sutton Trust polling has found that 39% of secondary pupils from better-off homes had received private tuition at some point in their schooling, compared to 22% of pupils from worse off homes.

A major concern is that the National Tutoring Programme – a key government initiative to help pupils catch up on the lost learning of the pandemic and its aftermath – is due to come to an end this summer. This scheme has expanded access to tutoring for low-income pupils, with the polling showing that more than a quarter (27%) of free school meal students received tutoring from their school last year. 

One-to-one and small group tuition are proven and highly cost-effective strategies for raising attainment. Research by the EEF has found access to one-to-one tuition enables students to make up to 5 months of additional progress, and group tuition enables them to make up to 4 months’ progress. Cutting funding for tutoring will set back efforts to reverse the attainment gap.

At its heart, the attainment gap is caused by underlying poverty and exacerbated by regressive changes to school funding, socially exclusive admissions to top schools, and unequal access to high quality teachers. 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, reflecting the greater challenges faced by those schools. By 2021 this had dropped to around 20%, due largely to reforms to the National Funding Formula in 2018, which disproportionately reduced funding for schools in deprived areas – taking away support from where it is needed the most.

Schools on their own can’t fix all of these issues, but are increasingly expected to fill in gaps in the wider social safety net. In autumn 2022, 56% of head teachers reported an increase in children coming to school hungry, with greater increases in more deprived areas. This coincided with 74% of teachers reporting increases in the number of children being tired or unable to concentrate in lessons.

The Sutton Trust is calling for the next government to set out a long-term national strategy to close the attainment gap. This should include measures such as re-balancing funding back towards schools serving the most disadvantaged communities. Pupil Premium funding targeted at disadvantaged pupils should also be restored to at least 2014/15 levels, reversing the erosion caused by inflation.

The Trust is also calling for a renewed focus on tutoring by the next government. If secured over the long-term and refocused on supporting disadvantaged pupils, the National Tutoring Programme can play a significant role in closing the attainment gap.

Furthermore, free school meals should be extended to the children of all families in receipt of Universal Credit, to take hunger out of the classroom.

Sir Peter Lampl, Founder of the Sutton Trust and Founder of the Education Endowment Foundation, said:

“The difference in education outcomes between low-income students and their better-off peers – known as the attainment gap – has widened considerably since the pandemic. There needs to be renewed focus on tackling it. The next government needs to do much more for the most disadvantaged youngsters. This means increasing funding for low-income pupils, access to tutoring for the long-term, and to do more to take hunger out of the classroom.

“Coming from a low-income background shouldn’t be a barrier for children to succeed in education and in life.”

Sector Response

Daniel Kebede, General Secretary of the National Education Union, said:   

“Our current school system works against disadvantaged students in almost every way. Teacher shortages, unfair funding arrangements and an inappropriate curriculum have created a deepening crisis. The government has always failed to recognise the impact of Covid. Cutting the National Tutoring Programme would be a final abandonment of those communities and children most deeply affected by the pandemic. The consequences of such a decision would be felt for generations.” 

Geoff Barton, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said:

“The widening of the attainment gap is desperately sad but not entirely surprising. It is the logical consequence of the government’s failure to produce an adequate recovery plan in response to a pandemic which disproportionately impacted disadvantaged children and young people.

“The National Tutoring Programme, while by no means perfect, was one thing that was helping to tackle the attainment gap. It has opened up tutoring to children who otherwise would never have had access. It is unlikely that many schools will be able to afford to provide tuition without any form of financial support being available and it is very disappointing that the government no longer sees it as worthwhile to provide funding.

“Education simply must be a priority in the Spring Budget. The Sutton Trust’s recommendations about ringfencing funding for the NTP, reforming the National Funding Formula to reflect the varying levels of disadvantage in different communities and expanding free school meal eligibility to all children on Universal Credit would be good places to start. It’s time for the nation’s young people to be seen as an investment rather than a cost.”

Related Articles