Research School Network: The disadvantage gap explained We share key findings from our webinar with the Education Policy Institute’s Emily Hunt.


The disadvantage gap explained

We share key findings from our webinar with the Education Policy Institute’s Emily Hunt.

by Greenshaw Research School
on the

Earlier this year, the Education Policy Institute (EPI) published its report Covid-19 and Disadvantage Gaps in England 2020. We invited Emily Hunt, lead author, to our first webinar in our Disadvantaged series to summarise the highlights.

The obvious context behind this report is that of the global pandemic, which has been recognised by the DfE as extraordinary circumstances’, something I am certain we would all agree with. The landscape therefore also included the cancellation of exams with no assessment at Key Stage 2 or the Early Years, and a substantially changed method for awarding final GCSE and A level grades.

Therefore, it should be noted that the data used to explore the disadvantage gap in this report was the only data available in 2020: that of Centre Assessed Grades (CAGs) and/​or Ofqual calculated grade for GCSEs and A levels.

(If you are a primary colleague and feeling despair that this report doesn’t apply to your context, EPI have been engaged in other research projects which explore pupil progress subsequent to the pandemic. The report Understanding Progress in the 2020/21 Academic Year was a joint undertaking between Renaissance Learning and EPI and showed some shoots of reading recovery’ in the primary sector.)

The Covid-19 and Disadvantage Gaps in England 2020 report had two key questions it was looking to answer:

1. What happened in 2020 to the gap in grades between disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged students, as well as between other characteristic groups?

2. Did non-academic students lose out relative to A level students under the 2020 grading process?

Firstly, to be clear, disadvantaged pupils in this report refers to those pupils who are in receipt of the Pupil Premium funding, that is they are either currently in receipt of Free School Meals (FSM); have been in receipt of FSM at some point during the last 6 years (Ever‑6); or their parents are in the armed forces.

What may be surprising about the findings is that the CAGs grade-awarding process did not display the levels of teacher bias that were predicted. It was thought that there could be a negativity bias towards disadvantaged pupils, but the gap was not any wider than in more normal years.

What may be less surprising is that there is little evidence of achieving the long-term aspiration of closing the gap’ completely between disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged pupils. Since the announcement of Pupil Premium funding in 2011, there was a good level of progress towards closing this gap in the initial years, but since 2017 this progress amongst the wider disadvantaged cohort has all but ground to a halt.

I mention there the wider disadvantaged cohort’ because a distinct sub-group has been identified as worthy of consideration separately within the disadvantaged category – that of persistently disadvantaged pupils. Persistent disadvantage is defined as those pupils who have been in receipt of FSM for at least 80% of their schooling. The headline for this cohort is that since 2011, there has been no progress in closing the GCSE gap for these pupils. Not only that, but there has been an increase in the persistently disadvantaged population.

Persistent disadvantage image jpg

There is the sense that this is a core group for whom the current policy has not made any improvements: it is a big problem and it is not going away.

The story in terms of the 16 – 19 cohort is less positive with a widening of the gap seen in 2020. The evidence shows that disadvantaged pupils are less likely to take A levels and it was within A levels that grade inflation was seen during the 2020 CAGs process.

One interesting thread which this new report seems to indicate is in regards to geography: where you live matters for educational inequalities.

Disadvantaged pupils in Knowsley, Blackpool and Salford are around 1.7 grades behind their peers by the end of secondary school, whereas in Kensington and Chelsea, the gap is less than one tenth the size. Indeed, only 3 of the local authorities with the smallest disadvantage gaps in 2020 are outside London, exemplifying the so-called London Effect.

However, as already alluded to, pupils with persistent disadvantage have lower attainment, and therefore areas which have higher levels of persistence might be unfairly judged using this raw metric.

What EPI did in this report was to adjust the gap to try to equalise this level of persistence and found that many areas which currently rank as some of the worse in the country significantly improved their position following this consideration. For example, after comparing raw and adjusted data, some local authorities actually see a reduced gap – Kirklees has a gap reduction of 0.4 grades, whilst Sunderland, Tower Hamlets and Middlesbrough are all reduced by 0.3 grades.

Geographical image jpg

The differences between local authorities can be explored further using EPI’s interactive data tool on their website.

What are the key takeaways from the report?

  • Disadvantaged pupils have worse educational outcomes than their peers, and this gap grows the longer a pupil has been disadvantaged
  • Progress in narrowing the GCSE disadvantage gap has stalled since 2017
  • This stalling can be partly attributed to more pupils being persistently disadvantaged, with no progress since 2011 for this cohort of pupils
  • For 16 – 19 education, the gap did increase in 2020, with those pupils doing applied general qualifications losing out relative to those doing A levels.

What can we as teachers do about this?

To answer the question above we have to consider what is within our control in education. There is so much within disadvantage that is out of our control, things we can point out as barriers to success for pupils like parental engagement; motivation and aspirations of pupils; lack of resources or quality of place to work outside of school.

I would argue that our ability to control these aspects is very limited and any work we do as schools to try to impact on these things will be highly time-consuming, and potentially only show minimal effect. We of course need to still engage with parents and undertake this work, however, we need to acknowledge the outcomes it will have and direct appropriate levels of resourcing towards it.

What we can do is to see teaching and learning as the key driver to transform life chances of pupils we regard as disadvantaged. We need to view everything we do in schools through the lens of disadvantaged pupils, as Phil Stock so eloquently talked about in this blog, and ensure we capture every opportunity presented to us to deliver powerful education.

Join us on 23rd May 2022 for the next in our webinar series, when Caroline Spalding and Chloe Woodhouse will be summarising some of the lessons learning from their years leading the Pupil Premium in a school in an area of high deprivation – flawed approaches, better bets, and worked examples of how they have managed to raise achievement against a complex backdrop.


Ro King

Deputy Director of Greenshaw Research School

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