GCSE subjects reveal stark unfairness faced by disadvantaged pupils

Teach First has today (21 Aug) published a new investigation exploring the difference in GCSE results of specific subjects between young people who attend schools in England’s richest and poorest communities.

  • Two in five (38%) pupils from the poorest postcodes do not pass Maths GCSE(1), nearly twice as many as those from the richest postcodes (20%);  
  • Only 11% of the poorest pupils get the top three grades in English Language; 13% in maths; 12% in geography and 15% in French.  

In the week when thousands of students receive their GCSE results, Teach First has today published a new investigation exploring the difference in results of specific subjects between young people who attend schools in England’s richest and poorest communities.

In every subject within the EBacc, the charity reveals that pupils attending schools in the poorest areas were much less likely to pass compared to those who attend schools in the richest areas. In geography half (50%) of disadvantaged children fail to get a level 4, which the Department for Education defines as a ‘Standard Pass’, compared to 27% of the richest pupils.

The most disadvantaged children were also much less likely to get the top three grades compared to their richer peers. In maths, 13% of the poorest pupils get grades 9, 8 and 7 - which are aligned with previously graded A*s and As - compared to 26% of the richest pupils.

The original analysis also found:  

  • 38% of the poorest pupils fail to pass English Language, compared to 22% of the richest; while 11% of the poorest get the top grades compared to 22% of the richest.   
  • Nearly half (46%) of the poorest pupils do not pass history, compared to 27% of the richest; while 16% of the poorest get the top grades, compared to 31% of the richest.  
  • 41% young people from the poorest communities fail to pass French, compared to a quarter (26%) of their wealthier peers – who are twice as likely to get the top grades (27% vs 15%).  
  • 15% of the poorest pupils fail to pass all three sciences, compared to 5% of the richest who don’t get a pass in biology, 7% in chemistry and 6% in physics.

The charity argues that this inequality is holding children back from reaching their full potential, as poor attainment at school significantly reduces the chances of them moving onto top universities, high-quality apprentices and well-paid jobs.

Due to the damning scale of inequality revealed, Teach First is calling on policy makers to urgently put more investment into schools serving poorer communities. This also means targeted action to increase teacher starting salaries, to encourage more great people to take up the challenge of teaching in areas serving poorer communities.

Russell Hobby, Chief Executive of Teach First, said:

“A child’s postcode should never determine how well they do at school, yet today we’ve found huge disparities based on just that. Low attainment at GCSE is a real cause for concern, as it can shut doors to future success and holds young people back from meeting their aspirations.   

“We know that it is possible to alter the outcome for children in every area. Because time and time again we’ve seen the transformational difference a brilliant education can make, helping all young people to thrive.  

“But if we are to achieve this everywhere, the Prime Minister needs to not only hold true to his promise of more investment for schools – but he must target it at those in areas of the greatest need. That also means urgently addressing teacher starting salaries, to help encourage more talented people into the profession, so they can use their skills and knowledge where it really matters.”

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Case Studies 

Katy Mills, English teacher, said:

“With a subject like English, there’s such a correlation between results and the cultural capital that children have. So when you have kids that have never even stepped outside of Ipswich in their lives, you do see challenges that kids from more advantaged backgrounds ones don’t come up against.

“As teachers, we have to help build their confidence. You have to tell them to keep going. You have to get them to believe in themselves and what’s possible if they work hard.

“I remember this one boy in the low ability class. He’d started with us in year 10, and straight away, you could see there were real challenges when it came to engagement and behaviour. He hated English too. He’d often say that it just wasn’t his thing. That meant that he’d get frustrated about the smallest mistakes. So I made sure to tell him that those mistakes were ok – while taking the time to raise his confidence. We really had to take him step by step through that support. It took time, but we were able to get him a 5 in the end.”

Nathan D’Laryea, Maths teacher, said:

“As teachers, seeing your pupils finally get their results is as rewarding as it is terrifying. That’s especially true when I think about one pupil - a girl that came to England in the same year that I began teaching.

“By the time I met her, a lot of teachers had given up on her. She was put in the bottom set for everything. She struggled with her English. And she had all the classic markers of someone that had a challenging life outside the school gates. She was also picked on a lot, so was often getting into fights.

“But I could tell that she wanted to learn. And particularly enjoyed maths. So a couple of us took her under our wing, and she really responded to that. You could see that she really worked hard for those who wanted to help her. She’d even come into the maths department at break to save herself getting into fights.

“I always love seeing kids open their certificates. Because I saw how happy she was with the result she had, she was absolutely one of them.”

Shaeera said:

“I used to get myself into trouble and be in school late all the time because of detentions. So I came into school thinking, ‘well it’s just another day. It’s just the same thing over and over’. I just thought it was all pointless.

“All of that meant that I was so angry at my teacher because he split me off from the those I talked to. But I then started to want to prove to myself that if I put my energy into something, I could achieve it.

“That wouldn’t have happened were it not for my teacher. He took time and was never too busy to care. Because of him, I’ve come along way – so much so, I eventually hope to study psychology at Cambridge University.”

Angela Rayner MP, Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary, said:

“The Tories have embedded inequality in our schools, with the most disadvantaged students losing out.   

“The Conservatives have slashed funding for schools and created a crisis in teacher recruitment and retention, and a generation of children are paying the price for this government’s failure.

“Labour will end Tory cuts to our schools, giving them the resources they need to help every child to succeed, whatever their background.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said:

“The gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers has narrowed considerably since 2011, and 85% of children are now in good or outstanding schools compared to just 66% in 2010.

“And our £2.4 billion Pupil Premium is helping the most disadvantaged children. But we must do more.

“The Prime Minister has committed to increasing school funding so we can level up all parts of the UK and close the opportunity gap. We will continue to drive up school standards right across the country, and do more to continue to attract and retain talented individuals in our classrooms as well as giving teachers the powers they need to deal with bad behaviour and bullying.

"We announced a pay rise of 2.75% for teachers so that their salaries recognise the impact their work can have on a pupil’s life, as well as launching the first-ever Teacher Recruitment & Retention Strategy this year, the biggest reforms the sector has seen in a generation.

"The gap between disadvantaged pupils and others at key stage 2, measured using the disadvantage gap index, has decreased in each of the last seven years, narrowing by 3% in the latest year and 13.2% since 2011.

"The gap between disadvantaged pupils and others at key stage 4, measured using the disadvantage gap index has narrowed by 9.5% since 2011. In the latest year, it remained broadly stable, widening by 0.6% between 2017 and 2018.

"There is more money going into our schools than ever before and the Government has acted to tackle disadvantage by providing schools with an extra £2.4 billion this year alone through the Pupil Premium to improve disadvantaged pupils’ performance.

"New guidance available through the Education Endowment Foundation will help schools make good choices to improve their disadvantaged pupils’ outcomes."

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