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Education

Education Gap Between Richer and Poorer Pupils in England Widens for First Time in a Decade

Why Global Citizens Should Care
The UN's Global Goal 4 aims to ensure that everyone has access to a quality education at primary and secondary level. COVID-19 has put a lot of progress in this area at risk, so it’s vital to be aware of the challenges and keep fighting for access to quality education for all. Join the movement by taking action to help support education and tackle COVID-19.


The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted pretty much every aspect of society, but the education sector has had to make some of the most dramatic alterations — leading to some of the most worrying consequences.

The UK’s recent A-Level results fiasco — during which a grading algorithm was used instead of exams, which ended up downgrading students from poorer areas and larger schools before students won an appeal — is one example of that disruption. 

It shows how COVID-19’s impacts on education tend to be felt the hardest by pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds, with significant potential to disrupt their future prospects.

School represents routine, a social life, and for many vulnerable students, a place of safety and care, as well as a place of learning. So when schools closed to all pupils, except for the children of key workers, when the UK went into lockdown on March 23 many experts were extremely concerned about the long-term effects on young people’s welfare – particularly those who were already vulnerable.

Now, new research published on Aug. 26, suggests that when pupils in England do head back to school, as they are set to reopen in a couple of weeks for the new academic year, schools will have to work extra hard to close a widening attainment gap.

The Education Policy Institute, an independent research institute, has released its annual report on the state of education in England (so it doesn’t assess Scotland, Wales, or Northern Ireland). It finds that progress previously made on narrowing the gap in education levels between disadvantaged students and their peers has stalled. 

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“The attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers has stopped closing for the first time in a decade,” the report said.

The change is more pronounced among primary school children – for whom the gap widened for the first time since 2007.

Looking at the whole cohort, the researchers found that disadvantaged pupils in England are 18.1 months of learning behind their peers by the time they finish their GCSEs, which is the same gap as was seen five years ago.

The “persistently disadvantaged groups” — identified as pupils eligible for free school meals for at least 80% of their school life — fared even worse, and were averaging 22 months behind their peers at the same age.

The issue is, this study was conducted based on data from 2019, so the signs of this gap occurred before the pandemic and the school shutdowns even happened.

The researchers warn that “persistent poverty” has impacted the most disadvantaged pupils, causing these worsening outcomes.

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“This was the worrying position from which the school system entered the pandemic and lockdown in 2020, which are widely expected to worsen disadvantage gaps,” the report authors wrote in their conclusion.

Speaking to Sky News, a headteacher from Blackpool — a town found to have the largest gap between richer and poorer pupils — said she was concerned about the impact of the virus.

“The most vulnerable is becoming more common,” she said. “I know when we get back in September, the pandemic would have created another layer of deprivation within our families."

The impact of COVID-19 on education has been felt all over the world.

Earlier this month, 275 former world leaders warned that the estimated 1.6 billion children who are currently out of education globally must not be forgotten about in the recovery – with girls being more at risk of child marriage and abuse being just one immiment danger. Some 30 million children, they said, may never go back when schools do reopen.

Join us by taking action to support the Education Cannot Wait campaign, calling on leaders to make sure vulnerable children aren’t left behind due to disruption to their education.