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The Progressive Policy Think Tank

Free schools & academies can only close GCSE attainment gap by a fifth

Think tank says one-to-one tuition & early years investment needed too.

Improving school performance, through academy and free schools status, will not be enough to close the attainment gap between rich and poor pupils in England's schools, according to a new report published by the think tank IPPR next week. The report urges Michael Gove and Nick Clegg to reform the Pupil Premium, expand personal tuition and invest more in early years education.  

The report shows that pupils from deprived areas are about as likely to attend a school rated 'satisfactory or inadequate' as wealthier pupils are likely to attend a school rated 'outstanding'. But simply having more outstanding schools will not be enough to close the attainment gap.  Even if every pupil in the country attended an outstanding school, the achievement gap between the poorest and wealthiest pupils would only be cut by a fifth. There would still be a gap of 40 GCSE points between the poorest and wealthiest pupils (the equivalent of one grade higher in 7 GCSEs taken). This is because the overall level of attainment is shifted upwards so the gap between rich and poor remains.

The report argues more attention needs to be paid to how the gap between rich and poor can be narrowed within each school. IPPR's report urges the Government to reform the Pupil Premium and ensure that schools target those pupils who are falling behind when they start out in Year 7, by placing them in small groups focused on literacy and numeracy until they reach the average level of performance for their age group. Small group tuition has been shown to improve pupil learning by the equivalent of an additional six months of progress over the course of a school year.

The report argues that this approach has been adopted by world-leading school systems such as Finland, where nearly half of pupils receive some form of catch-up tuition over the course of their school career. The report shows that Finland tops international rankings by raising the performance of its lowest achievers, as well as stretching the brightest. In Finland, only 8 % of pupils fail to reach basic proficiency in reading, compared to 19% in England.

IPPR has calculated that around half of the achievement gap at age sixteen was already present when those pupils started secondary school. Programmes in primary school and early years will also be important for closing the gap. The report shows that the impact achieved by a pre-kindergarten programme in Boston, USA, would be enough to close the England's pre-school attainment gap entirely.

Nick Pearce, IPPR Director, said:

"Education is the springboard to a better life and the achievement gap at GCSE matters greatly for life chances and social mobility. Only a fifth of the lowest achievers at age 16 go on to acquire any sort of further education or training, while at the other end of the spectrum good GCSEs are an essential requirement for entry to a top university.

"School improvement policies are a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for closing the GCSE attainment gap. Around half of the achievement gap at age sixteen was already present when those pupils started secondary school. Schools need to spend the Pupil Premium on targeting pupils who fall behind but we need more investment in high quality early years, pre-school education."

Notes to Editors

IPPR's new report - 'A long division: closing the attainment gap in England's secondary schools' - will be published at

IPPR's new analysis shows that pupils living in the most deprived postcodes score, on average, the equivalent of eight grade 'C' GCSEs, while pupils living in the wealthiest postcodes score on average just over eight grade 'B' GCSEs.

IPPR backs free schools and academies because pupils from deprived areas are as likely to attend a school rated 'satisfactory or inadequate' as wealthier pupils are likely to attend a school rated as 'outstanding'. IPPR's analysis shows that pupils in the 25% most deprived postcodes score on average around 4Bs and 4Cs at GCSE in outstanding schools, compared to 4Ds and 4Cs in an inadequate school.

The report models the impact on the attainment gradient if every pupil in the country attended an outstanding school, taking into account factors such as prior achievement and special educational needs. The gap between pupils in the 20% most deprived postcodes and 20% least deprived postcodes is currently 51 GCSE points. If all pupils attended an outstanding school the gap would fall to 40 points, a drop of just over a fifth. An attainment gap remains because wealthier pupils perform better than poorer pupils even in outstanding schools.     

For a measure of deprivation, IPPR used the Income Deprivation Affecting Children Index (IDACI), which is constructed for each pupil based on the postcode where they live. For a measure of educational achievement IPPR used the official capped GCSE points score. This is a pupil's best eight GCSE results expressed as an overall point score, where each grade is given a certain number of points. For example a grade A* is worth 58 points, an A is worth 52 points, a grade B is worth 46 points and so on. The maximum score is therefore 464 points, which translates into eight grades at A*.

The report shows that ensuring bright pupils from disadvantaged homes are stretched will also be important for narrowing the achievement gap. IPPR calculates that around half of the pupils on Free School Meals that currently achieve straight As would need to achieve straight A*s in order eradicate the achievement gap at the very top of the distribution. The report also shows that a third of the FSM pupils that currently score straight Gs would need to improve by the equivalent of two grades across the board, getting straight Es, in order to eradicate the gap. This is a much bigger jump than is required at the top of the distribution, where pupils generally need to improve by just one grade in each of their subjects.

The report shows that biggest improvements are needed among low achievers to help narrow the class gap because there is a much bigger variation in GCSE results among poorer pupils than there is among wealthier pupils. The highest achieving pupils from deprived postcodes score almost as well as the highest achieving pupils from wealthier areas - they score about 40 points less at GCSE. However the low achieving pupils from deprived neighbourhoods score much worse than the low achieving pupils from wealthier areas - they score about 120 points less at GCSE.

IPPR is concerned that schools may spend the Pupil Premium resources on well intentioned programmes that, in practice, have not been proven to raise attainment. A recent survey of teachers found 15 per cent would prioritise using the money on reducing class sizes and 8 per cent would spend it on additional teaching assistants - however trials of both these programmes show they have little impact on pupil attainment. The same survey showed that less than 3 per cent of teachers would opt to spend the pupil premium on proven cost-effective interventions such as peer tutoring, and that a quarter of teachers didn't know what the money should be spent on at all. IPPR is also worried that schools may face pressures to spend their resources on things that aren't directly related to raising low achievement because the Pupil Premium is not ring-fenced.

The Boston Public Schools prekindergarten programme in the USA had an average effect size of 0.62 in reading and 0.59 in numeracy, and the impacts were even larger for children who were eligible for free lunches. This is around the effect size that is required to close the attainment gap in England at the start of primary school. The programme involved a significant investment of city resources in the quality of preschool provision, including in curricula, coaches and training.


Tim Finch, 07595 920899,