A new report on education in England from the Education Policy Institute and partners paints a worrying national picture of children from the poorest homes starting to fall further behind peers from more affluent backgrounds in educational achievement. This “disadvantage gap” had been narrowing. But figures for 2019 – before the coronavirus struck, of course – show, the researchers say, that the gap has “stopped closing over the last five years and there are several indications that it has begun to widen”.
Different measurements and figures are used to produce findings for “early years” schooling, the end of primary school and the position when children come to take their GCSEs. There are also variations across the English school population, including by region and local authority area. How does London fare?
The good news is that the overall disadvantage gaps in a striking number of our boroughs’ GCSE students in 2019 were among the smallest in England. In a league table of sizes of the gap in attainment in GCSE English and maths (pages 27-30), in which those local authorities with the smallest ones are placed lowest, London boroughs occupy the bottom (meaning top) twelve places, headed by Westminster and followed by Redbridge, Ealing, Barnet, Newham, Tower Hamlets, Brent, Kensington & Chelsea, Hounslow, Hammersmith & Fulham, Hackney and Southwark.
Next on the list is Rutland, though this placing should be viewed with caution, due to the very small numbers of people who live in that famous county. London boroughs then take 18 of the next 23 places and even the two worst-placed, Croydon and Lewisham, are in well into the lower (meaning best) half of the 150-strong local authority list, placed 110th and 107th respectively. Basically, the capital leads the way in the smaller disadvantage gaps, and does so in a very big way.
Much the same picture emerges when these “raw” figures are adjusted to take into specific account the percentages of children in each local authority area categorised as “persistently disadvantaged”, defined as having been eligible for free school meals for 80% or more of their school lives. Westminster stays top while most of the other boroughs move up and down a bit – somewhere between one ranking and a handful.
This is all quite gratifying from a Londoncentric point of view, and it seems reasonable to regard it as more evidence to justify characterising London’s schools as the best in the country – especially in view of the very high poverty rates the city contains. That said, disadvantage gaps continue to exist in the capital, and become apparent from the earliest years of schooling, just like everywhere else.
For example, even in relatively low gap Newham, children from poor backgrounds are on average close to a month behind their better-off peers by the end of primary school. in Tower Hamlets the gap is a little over a month, in Camden 2.5 months, in Richmond 3.4 months, in Harrow 4.4 months and in Lambeth 5.5 months. These compare very well with, for example, Bedford (14.8 months), Dudley (13 months) and Somerset (12.5 months).
By GCSE, all the smallest gaps for 2019 were again in London: Westminster o.5 months, Redbridge 2.7 months, Ealing 4.6 months, Barnet 5.6 months and so on. Once more, these are excellent outcomes next to those of Blackpool, Knowsley and Plymouth, all of which have disadvantage gaps of more than two years by the time their school student have completed Year 11. Two questions come straight to mind: one, will London’s relative success in these educational outcomes continue?; two, what should be done to help disadvantaged children in other parts of England fall less far behind their more fortunate peers?
Read the full report, compiled by the Education Policy Institute in partnership with the Fair Education Alliance and Unbound Philanthropy, here.
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