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Equity and Excellence: how to narrow the attainment gap in schools Current

children , education , equality , poverty , schools



IPPR is conducting research into how the attainment gap between pupils from different backgrounds can be closed. We will develop a series of proposals that fit together to make a coherent ‘programme for reform’.


Children from poor backgrounds leave school with substantially lower levels of educational achievement than their better-off peers. This is one of the most enduring features of the English school system. Despite a small narrowing of the attainment gap over the past decade, last year 31 per cent of pupils from poor backgrounds achieved five good GCSEs including English and maths, compared to 59 per cent of children from wealthier homes.

There are three reasons why inequality in the education system should be a cause for concern:

  • Low educational achievement can leave young people poorly prepared for modern life. It leaves them badly prepared for the jobs market (over a third of young people with no qualifications are currently not in employment, education or training), and at a higher risk of being in prison (IPPR 2010). The costs to both individuals and society are high.
  • Raising the achievement of pupils from poor backgrounds is the best way to drive overall improvement in the school system. International evidence shows the top performing school systems are also the fairest (PISA 2010).
  • Educational inequality is a matter of social justice. It is not fair that a child’s social background should prevent them achieving their full potential in life.

The change of government, accompanied by widespread reform to the school system, has opened debates over how to improve attainment for low achievers. The expansion of academies will see many head teachers given greater freedoms over staff recruitment, curriculum and how they spend their budgets, while losing some of the support they receive from local authorities. How can they use these freedoms to narrow the attainment gap in their schools? What will these changes mean for pupils from poorer backgrounds?

Meanwhile, central government can still assert their control by setting overall school budgets, introducing performance measures, and introducing new forms of assessments. How can the government hold schools to account for their performance? Can they ensure schools are narrowing the attainment gap? 

These changes to the school system will result in a complex web of schools with different freedoms and restraints. New ideas are needed to fit this changing policy landscape. The time is therefore right for innovative policy proposals that are workable for school leaders and policymakers.