Disadvantaged high attainers achieve ‘one GCSE grade lower’ than affluent peers

The social mobility of the next generation is ‘under threat’, a report warns (Gareth Fuller/PA)
The social mobility of the next generation is ‘under threat’, a report warns (Gareth Fuller/PA)

Highly-able disadvantaged pupils achieve on average a whole grade lower per GCSE subject than the most affluent highly-able children, research suggests.

The social mobility of the next generation is “under threat” unless intervention takes place to close the attainment gaps that have opened since the pandemic, a report by the Sutton Trust charity warns.

The report finds that 62% of non-disadvantaged high attainers got five or more grade 7-9s (the top grades) at GCSE in 2021, compared to 40% of high-potential pupils who were disadvantaged.

If the disadvantaged group progressed at the same rate as their peers, there would have been almost 7,000 more achieving top GCSE grades in 2021. Over five years, this amounts to over 28,000 pupils.

The study looks at a group of 2,249 young people in England from disadvantaged backgrounds who showed high academic potential at the end of primary school.

It explores the progress of this group during secondary school in comparison to their non-disadvantaged peers with the same grades.

By the time disadvantaged high attainers take their GCSEs, they have fallen behind similar non-disadvantaged students by more than three quarters of a grade per subject on average, and by around one whole grade per subject compared to those from the most affluent backgrounds.

They are also almost twice as likely to drop out of the group of children who are in the top third of attainment at GCSE as those from better off homes, the report finds.

Within the disadvantaged high-attainer group, those most likely to fall behind at GCSE included boys, White and Black Caribbean pupils, and pupils in the North East and North West of England.

Disadvantaged high attainers were over three times more likely to lack a suitable device to study at the beginning of the pandemic, and twice as likely to lack suitable place to study, the report says.

They were less than half as likely to receive private tutoring compared to other high attainers, but more likely to receive catch-up tutoring at school – 26%, compared to 18% of other high attainers.

The Sutton Trust is calling on the government to urgently review funding for schools in the most disadvantaged areas of the country and ensure there is enough support for schools so they can embed the flagship National Tutoring Programme (NTP) into their provision.

It also recommends that universities make better use of contextual offers – including reduced grade offers – to widen access to higher education and to acknowledge the attainment gap.

Peter Lampl, chairman of the Sutton Trust, said: “It’s tragic that the talent of so many youngsters showing early promise is being allowed to go to waste. This is not only grossly unfair, damaging the life changes of young people, but by wasting their talent we’re also damaging the country.

“The government needs to increase funding in the most disadvantaged areas such as by means of the highly effective National Tutoring Programme.

“There is a sense that bright young people can look after themselves, but this is patently a myth. These young people need as much nurturing as the average youngster.”

James Bowen, assistant general secretary at school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “Schools do their best to support pupils, but they cannot do this alone.”

He added: “Serious government investment is needed, not just schools, but in services like social care and mental health, and in opportunities and financial support for the poorest families.

“Without this, inequalities will persist and schools will continue to find it difficult to close this unjust attainment gap.”

Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), said: “That poverty and disadvantage can have such severe impacts on children’s educational experience is a stark message to Government that they must do more to support schools to make education work for every child.”

A Department for Education (DfE) spokesperson said: “We remain committed to closing the disadvantage attainment gap, especially post-pandemic.

“We are targeting support for those who need it most through the National Tutoring Programme, which is backed by over £1 billion and has had over three million course starts to date.

“We’ve also increased our support to the Pupil Premium providing almost £2.9 billion this year – the highest cash terms rates since this funding began.”