Recent Research Digested: Education and the Disadvantage Gap

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The Education Policy Institute’s Annual Report into Education in England, authored by Hutchinson, Reader and Akhal (2020), makes a number of observations and assessments about the state of education in England. Most of these do, however, fall into the “interesting but dull” category so I thought I’d save you a lot of valuable time by reading the document on your behalf and picking-out what I think are probably the most useful bits for sociology teachers and students relating to the “disadvantage gap” (the difference in attainment between “disadvantaged pupils and their peers”)

You can, of course, always read the Report (or the summary if you prefer) for yourself if you’re so inclined, but if you’re not, these are four of the more-interesting bits:

1. The disadvantage gap has stopped closing since 2015 and there are several indications that it has begun to widen.

In 2018 the disadvantage gap increased for both Early years and Secondary pupils for the first time since 2011 and in 2019 it increased at Primary level for the first time since 2007. As the Report notes: “This is a concerning indication that inequalities have stopped reducing and have started to widen”.

In the 2019 Report the authors suggested that if the trend in attainment over the previous 5 years (from 2014) persisted, the disadvantage gap in secondary English and Maths – two core subjects in the GCSE curriculum – would “take 500 years to be eliminated”.


To put this into some sort of crazy context, it’s roughly the same number of years between the rule of Elizabeth 1st and Elizabeth 2nd.

This, however, was actually The Good News because this year’s Report suggests that the disadvantage gap is not actually closing anymore, even at the glacial pace of previous years. “If”, the authors conclude “this were to continue, the gap would never close”.

More-pertinently, they further conclude that the disadvantage gap in key educational subjects “will never close without systemic change”. The main systemic factor in this respect being the persistence of poverty over a child’s school life and how this intersects with:

  • geographic variations.
  • special education needs.
  • ethnic groups and different elements within such groups (such as gender, age and class).
  • 2. Since 2011, there has been less progress in closing the gap for persistently disadvantaged pupils.

    Defined as those who have been eligible for Free School Meals (a proxy measure of poverty) for over-80% of their school life, such pupils “were on average 22 months behind their more advantaged peers and this has not improved since 2011”.  

    At Secondary level there has been very little progress in closing the “persistent disadvantage gap” since 2011.

    3. The ethnicity gap for pupils from Black backgrounds has widened significantly over the last decade as compared to their white British peers.

    While the disadvantage gap is notable for variations around the comparison with white British children (both White and Black Caribbean children have a larger gap and Chinese and Indian children do considerably better than their white British peers), the general trend is for pupils from Black backgrounds to fall further behind their white British peers, with clear evidence that “the ethnicity gap widens as children get older”.

    One important reason for this is much higher levels of poverty – and persistent poverty – among Black ethnicities.

    4. Regional variation in the disadvantage gap is partly explained by different levels of persistent poverty between regions.

    If the relative figures for levels of persistent levels of poverty are adjusted to “level the playing field” (at least theoretically) the disadvantage gap is lowered “for areas with relatively high levels of persistent poverty” and “worsens the gap for areas with relatively low levels of persistent poverty”.

    In other words, poverty levels play a large part in explaining both the existence and persistence of the disadvantage gap and, consequently calls into question other possible explanations (such as IQ differences between different classes, ethnic groups, etc.).

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