This post examines what we know – and do not know – about high attainment gaps between learners from advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds in England.
It assesses the capacity of current national education policy to close these gaps and recommends further action to improve the prospects of doing so rapidly and efficiently.
Because the post is extremely long I have divided it into two parts.
Part one comprises:
- A working definition for the English context, explanation of the significance of excellence gaps, description of how this post relates to earlier material and provisional development of the theoretical model articulated in those earlier posts.
- A summary of the headline data on socio-economic attainment gaps in England, followed by a review of published data relevant to excellence gaps at primary, secondary and post-16 levels.
Part two contains:
- A distillation of research evidence, including material on whether disadvantaged high attainers remain so, international comparisons studies and research derived from them, and literature covering excellence gaps in the USA.
- A brief review of how present Government policy might be expected to impact directly on excellence gaps, especially via the Pupil Premium, school accountability measures, the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) and the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission (SMCPC). I have left to one side the wider set of reforms that might have an indirect and/or longer-term impact.
- Some recommendations for strengthening our collective capacity to quantify address and ultimately close excellence gaps.
The post is intended to synthesise, supplement and update earlier material, so providing a baseline for further analysis – and ultimately consideration of further national policy intervention, whether under the present Government or a subsequent administration.
It does not discuss the economic and social origins of educational disadvantage, or the merits of wider policy to eliminate poverty and strengthen social mobility.
It starts from the premiss that, while education reform cannot eliminate the effects of disadvantage, it can make a significant, positive contribution by improving significantly the life chances of disadvantaged learners.
It does not debate the fundamental principle that, when prioritising educational support to improve the life chances of learners from disadvantaged backgrounds, governments should not discriminate on the basis of ability or prior attainment.
It assumes that optimal policies will deliver improvement for all disadvantaged learners, regardless of their starting point. It suggests, however, that intervention strategies should aim for equilibrium, prioritising gaps that are furthest away from it and taking account of several different variables in the process.
A working definition for the English context
The literature in Part two reveals that there is no accepted universal definition of excellence gaps, so I have developed my own England-specific working definition for the purposes of this post.
An excellence gap is:
‘The difference between the percentage of disadvantaged learners who reach a specified age- or stage-related threshold of high achievement – or who secure the requisite progress between two such thresholds – and the percentage of all other eligible learners that do so.’
This demands further clarification of what typically constitutes a disadvantaged learner and a threshold of high achievement.
In the English context, the measures of disadvantage with the most currency are FSM eligibility (eligible for and receiving free school meals) and eligibility for the deprivation element of the pupil premium (eligible for and receiving FSM at some point in the preceding six years – often called ‘ever 6’).
Throughout this post, for the sake of clarity, I have given priority to the former over the latter, except where the former is not available.
The foregrounded characteristic is socio-economic disadvantage, but this does not preclude analysis of the differential achievement of sub-groups defined according to secondary characteristics including gender, ethnic background and learning English as an additional language (EAL) – as well as multiple combinations of these.
Some research is focused on ‘socio-economic gradients’, which show how gaps vary at different points of the achievement distribution on a given assessment.
The appropriate thresholds of high achievement are most likely to be measured through national assessments of pupil attainment, notably end of KS2 tests (typically Year 6, age 11), GCSE and equivalent examinations (typically Year 11, age 16) and A level and equivalent examinations (typically Year 13, age 18).
Alternative thresholds of high achievement may be derived from international assessments, such as PISA, TIMSS or PIRLS.
Occasionally – and especially in the case of these international studies – an achievement threshold is statistically derived, in the form of a percentile range of performance, rather than with reference to a particular grade, level or score. I have not allowed for this within the working definition.
Progress measures typically relate to the distance travelled between: baseline assessment (currently at the end of KS1 – Year 2, age 7 – but scheduled to move to Year R, age 4) and end of KS2 tests; or between KS2 tests and the end of KS4 (GCSE); or between GCSE and the end of KS5 (Level 3/A level).
Some studies extend the concept of progress between two thresholds to a longitudinal approach that traces how disadvantaged learners who achieve a particular threshold perform throughout their school careers – do they sustain early success, or fall away, and what proportion are ‘late bloomers’?
Why are excellence gaps important?
Excellence gaps are important for two different sets of reasons: those applying to all achievement gaps and those which apply more specifically or substantively to excellence gaps.
Under the first heading:
- The goal of education should be to provide all learners, including disadvantaged learners, with the opportunity to maximise their educational potential, so eliminating ‘the soft bigotry of low expectations’.
- Schools should be ‘engines of social mobility’, helping disadvantaged learners to overcome their backgrounds and compete equally with their more advantaged peers.
- International comparisons studies reveal that the most successful education systems can and do raise attainment for all and close socio-economic achievement gaps simultaneously.
- There is a strong economic case for reducing – and ideally eradicating – underachievement attributable to disadvantage.
Under the second heading:
- An exclusive or predominant focus on gaps at the lower end of the attainment distribution is fundamentally inequitable and tends to reinforce the ‘soft bigotry of low expectations’.
- Disadvantaged learners benefit from successful role models – predecessors or peers from a similar background who have achieved highly and are reaping the benefits.
- An economic imperative to increase the supply of highly-skilled labour will place greater emphasis on the top end of the achievement distribution. Some argue that there is a ‘smart fraction’ tying national economic growth to a country’s stock of high achievers. There may be additional spin-off benefits from increasing the supply of scientists, writers, artists, or even politicians!
- The most highly educated disadvantaged learners are least likely to confer disadvantage on their children, so improving the proportion of such learners may tend to improve inter-generational social mobility.
Excellence gaps are rarely identified as such – the term is not yet in common usage in UK education, though it has greater currency in the US. Regardless of terminology, they rarely receive attention, either as part of a wider set of achievement gaps, or separately in their own right.
Relationship with earlier posts
Since this blog was founded in April 2010 I have written extensively about excellence gaps and how to address them.
The most pertinent of my previous posts are:
- The Transatlantic Excellence Gap: A Comparative Study of England and the USA – Part 1, the USA (August 2010).
- The Transatlantic Excellence Gap – Part 2, England (August 2010).
- The Economics of Gifted Education Revisited (March 2013).
- Unlocking Emergent Talent (May 2013) and
- Poor but bright v poor but dim (May 2014).
Gifted education (or apply your alternative term) is amongst those education policy areas most strongly influenced by political and ideological views on the preferred balance between excellence and equity. This is particularly true of decisions about how best to address excellence gaps.
The excellence-equity trade-off was identified in my first post (May 2010) as one of three fundamental polarities that determine the nature of gifted education and provide the basis for most discussion about what form it should take.
The Gifted Phoenix Manifesto for Gifted Education (March 2013) highlighted their significance thus:
‘Gifted education is about balancing excellence and equity. That means raising standards for all while also raising standards faster for those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Through combined support for excellence and equity we can significantly increase our national stock of high level human capital and so improve economic growth…
…Excellence in gifted education is about maximising the proportion of high achievers reaching advanced international benchmarks (eg PISA, TIMSS and PIRLS) so increasing the ‘smart fraction’ which contributes to economic growth.
Equity in gifted education is about narrowing (and ideally eliminating) the excellence gap between high achievers from advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds (which may be attributable in part to causes other than poverty). This also increases the proportion of high achievers, so building the ‘smart fraction’ and contributing to economic growth.’
More recently, one of the 10 draft core principles I set out in ‘Why Can’t We Have National Consensus on Educating High Attainers?’ (June 2014) said:
‘We must pursue simultaneously the twin priorities of raising standards and closing gaps. We must give higher priority to all disadvantaged learners, regardless of their prior achievement. Standards should continue to rise amongst all high achievers, but they should rise faster amongst disadvantaged high achievers. This makes a valuable contribution to social mobility.’
This model provisionally developed
Using my working definition as a starting point, this section describes a theoretical model showing how excellence and equity are brought to bear when considering excellence gaps – and then how best to address them.
This should be applicable at any level, from a single school to a national education system and all points in between.
The model depends on securing the optimal balance between excellence and equity where:
- Excellence is focused on increasing the proportion of all learners who achieve highly and, where necessary, increasing the pitch of high achievement thresholds to remove unhelpful ceiling effects. The thresholds in question may be nationally or internationally determined and are most likely to register high attainment through a formal assessment process. (This may be extended so there is complementary emphasis on increasing the proportion of high-achieving learners who make sufficiently strong progress between two different age- or stage-related thresholds.)
- Equity is focused on increasing the proportion of high-achieving disadvantaged learners (and/or the proportion of disadvantaged learners making sufficiently strong progress) at a comparatively faster rate, so they form a progressively larger proportion of the overall high-achieving population, up to the point of equilibrium, where advantaged and disadvantaged learners are equally likely to achieve the relevant thresholds (and/or progress measure). This must be secured without deliberately repressing improvement amongst advantaged learners – ie by introducing policies designed explicitly to limit their achievement and/or progress relative to disadvantaged learners – but a decision to do nothing or to redistribute resources in favour of disadvantage is entirely permissible.
The optimal policy response will depend on the starting position and the progress achieved over time.
If excellence gaps are widening, the model suggests that interventions and resources should be concentrated in favour of equity. Policies should be reviewed and adjusted, or strengthened where necessary, to meet the desired objectives.
If excellence gaps are widening rapidly, this reallocation and adjustment process will be relatively more substantial (and probably more urgent) than if they are widening more slowly.
Slowly widening gaps will demand more reallocation and adjustment than a situation where gaps are stubbornly resistant to improvement, or else closing too slowly. But even in the latter case there should be some reallocation and adjustment until equilibrium is achieved.
When excellence gaps are already closing rapidly – and there are no overt policies in place to deliberately repress improvement amongst high-achieving advantaged learners – it may be that unintended pressures in the system are inadvertently bringing this about. In that case, policy and resources should be adjusted to correct these pressures and so restore the correct twin-speed improvement.
The aim is to achieve and sustain equilibrium, even beyond the point when excellence gaps are eliminated, so that they are not permitted to reappear.
If ‘reverse gaps’ begin to materialise, where disadvantaged learners consistently outperform their more advantaged peers, this also threatens equilibrium and would suggest a proportionate redistribution of effort towards excellence.
Such scenarios are most likely to occur in settings where there are a large proportion of learners that, while not disadvantaged according to the ‘cliff edge’ definition required to make the distinction, are still relatively disadvantaged.
Close attention must therefore be paid to the distribution of achievement across the full spectrum of disadvantage, to ensure that success at the extreme of the distribution does not mask significant underachievement elsewhere.
One should be able to determine a more precise policy response by considering a restricted set of variables. These include:
- The size of the gaps at the start of the process and, associated with this, the time limit allowed for equilibrium to be reached. Clearly larger gaps are more likely to take longer to close. Policy makers may conclude that steady improvement over several years is more manageable for the system than a rapid sprint towards equilibrium. On the other hand, there may be benefits associated with pace and momentum.
- The rate at which overall high achievement is improving. If this is relatively fast, the rate of improvement amongst advantaged high achievers will be correspondingly strong, so the rate for disadvantaged high achievers must be stronger still.
- The variance between excellence gaps at different ages/stages. If the gaps are larger at particular stages of education, the pursuit of equilibrium suggests disproportionate attention is given to those so gaps are closed consistently. If excellence gaps are small for relatively young learners and increase with age, priority should be given to the latter, but there may be other factors in play, such as evidence that closing relatively small gaps at an early stage will have a more substantial ‘knock-on’ effect later on.
- The level at which high achievement thresholds are pitched. Obviously this will influence the size of the gaps that need to be closed. But, other things being equal, enabling a higher proportion of learners to achieve a relatively high threshold will demand more intensive support. On the other hand, relatively fewer learners – whether advantaged or disadvantaged – are likely to be successful. Does one need to move a few learners a big distance or a larger proportion a smaller one?
- Whether or not gaps at lower achievement thresholds are smaller and/or closing at a faster rate. If so, there is a strong case for securing parity of progress at higher and lower thresholds alike. On the other hand, if excellence gaps are closing more quickly, it may be appropriate to reallocate resources away from them and towards lower levels of achievement.
- The relative size of the overall disadvantaged population, the associated economic gap between advantage and disadvantage and (as suggested above) the distribution in relation to the cut-off. If the definition of disadvantage is pitched relatively low (ie somewhat disadvantaged), the disadvantaged population will be correspondingly large, but the economic gap between advantage and disadvantage will be relatively small. If the definition is pitched relatively high (ie very disadvantaged) the reverse will be true, giving a comparatively small disadvantaged population but a larger gap between advantage and disadvantage.
- The proportion of the disadvantaged population that is realistically within reach of the specified high achievement benchmarks. This variable is a matter of educational philosophy. There is merit in an inclusive approach – indeed it seems preferable to overestimate this proportion than the reverse. Extreme care should be taken not to discourage late developers or close off opportunities on the basis of comparatively low current attainment, so reinforcing existing gaps through unhelpfully low expectations. On the other hand, supporting unrealistically high expectations may be equally damaging and ultimately waste scarce resources. There may be more evidence to support such distinctions with older learners than with their younger peers.
How big are England’s headline attainment gaps and how fast are they closing?
Closing socio-economic achievement gaps has been central to English educational policy for the last two decades, including under the current Coalition Government and its Labour predecessor.
It will remain an important priority for the next Government, regardless of the outcome of the 2015 General Election.
The present Government cites ‘Raising the achievement of disadvantaged children’ as one of ten schools policies it is pursuing.
The policy description describes the issue thus:
‘Children from disadvantaged backgrounds are far less likely to get good GCSE results. Attainment statistics published in January 2014 show that in 2013 37.9% of pupils who qualified for free school meals got 5 GCSEs, including English and mathematics at A* to C, compared with 64.6% of pupils who do not qualify.
We believe it is unacceptable for children’s success to be determined by their social circumstances. We intend to raise levels of achievement for all disadvantaged pupils and to close the gap between disadvantaged children and their peers.’
The DfE’s input and impact indicators – showing progress against the priorities set out in its business plan – do not feature the measure mentioned in the policy description (which is actually five or more GCSEs at Grades A*-C or equivalents, including GCSEs in English and maths).
The gap on this measure was 27.7% in 2009, improving to 26.7% in 2013, so there has been a small 1.0 percentage point improvement over five years, spanning the last half of the previous Government’s term in office and the first half of this Government’s term.
Instead the impact indicators include three narrower measures focused on closing the attainment gap between free school meal pupils and their peers, at 11, 16 and 19 respectively:
- Impact Indicator 7 compares the percentages of FSM-eligible and all other pupils achieving level 4 or above in KS2 assessment of reading, writing and maths. The 2013 gap is 18.7%, down 0.4% from 19.1% in 2012.
- Impact Indicator 8 compares the percentages of FSM-eligible and all other pupils achieving A*-C grades in GCSE maths and English. The 2013 gap is 26.5%, up 0.3% from 26.2% in 2012.
- Impact Indicator 9 compares the percentages of learners who were FSM-eligible at age 15 and all other learners who attain a level 3 qualification by the end of the academic year in which they are 19. The 2013 gap is 24.3%, up 0.1% from 24.2% in 2012.
These small changes, not always pointing in the right direction, reflect the longer term narrative, as is evident from the Government’s Social Mobility Indicators which also incorporate these three measures.
- In 2005-06 the KS2 L4 maths and English gap was 25.0%, so there has been a fairly substantial 6.3 percentage point reduction over seven years, but only about one quarter of the gap has been closed.
- In 2007-08 the KS4 GCSE maths and English gap was 28.0%, so there has been a minimal 1.5 percentage point reduction over six years, equivalent to annual national progress of 0.25 percentage points per year. At that rate it will take another century to complete the process.
- In 2004-05 the Level 3 qualification gap was 26.4%, so there has been a very similar 2.1 percentage point reduction over 8 years.
The DfE impact indicators also include a set of three destination measures that track the percentage of FSM learners progressing to Oxford and Cambridge, any Russell Group university and any university.
There is a significant time lag with all of these – the most recent available data relates to 2011/2012 – and only two years of data have been collected.
All show an upward trend. Oxbridge is up from 0.1% to 0.2%, Russell Group up from 3% to 4% and any university up from 45% to 47% – actually a 2.5 percentage point improvement.
The Oxbridge numbers are so small that a percentage measure is a rather misleading indicator of marginal improvement from a desperately low base.
It is important to note that forthcoming changes to the assessment regime will impose a different set of headline indicators at ages 11 and 16 that will not be comparable with these.
From 2014 significant methodological adjustments are being introduced to School Performance Tables that significantly restrict the range of qualifications equivalent to GCSEs. Only the first entry in each subject will count for Performance Table purposes, this applying to English Baccalaureate subjects in 2014 and then all subjects in 2015.
Both these factors will tend to depress overall results and may be expected to widen attainment gaps on the headline KS4 measure as well as the oft-cited 5+ GCSEs measure.
From 2016 new baseline assessments, the introduction of scaled scores at the end of KS2 and a new GCSE grading system will add a further layer of change.
As a consequence there will be substantial revisions to the headline measures in Primary, Secondary and Post-16 Performance Tables. The latter will include destination measures, provided they can be made methodologically sound.
At the time of writing, the Government has made negligible reference to the impact of these reforms on national measures of progress, including its own Impact Indicators and the parallel Social Mobility indicators, though the latter are reportedly under review.
Published data on English excellence gaps
The following sections summarise what data I can find in the public domain about excellence gaps at primary (KS2), secondary (KS4) and post-16 (KS5) respectively.
I have cited the most recent data derivable from Government statistical releases and performance tables, supplemented by other interesting findings gleaned from research and commentary.
The most recent national data is contained in SFR51/2013: National Curriculum Assessments at Key Stage 2: 2012 to 2013. This provides limited information about the differential performance of learners eligible for and receiving FSM (which I have referred to as ‘FSM’), and for those known to be eligible for FSM at any point from Years 1 to 6 (known as ‘ever 6’ and describing those in receipt of the Pupil Premium on grounds of deprivation).
There is also additional information in the 2013 Primary School Performance Tables, where the term ‘disadvantaged’ is used to describe ‘ever 6’ learners and ‘children looked after’.
There is comparably little variation between these different sets of figures at national level. In the analysis below (and in the subsequent section on KS4) I have used FSM data wherever possible, but have substituted ‘disadvantaged’ data where FSM is not available. All figures apply to state-funded schools only.
I have used Level 5 and above as the best available proxy for high attainment. Some Level 6 data is available, but in percentages only, and these are all so small that comparisons are misleading.
The Performance Tables distinguish a subset of high attainers, on the basis of prior attainment (at KS1 for KS2 and at KS2 for KS4) but no information is provided about the differential performance of advantaged and disadvantaged high attainers.
- 21% of all pupils achieved Level 5 or above in reading, writing and maths combined, but only 10% of FSM pupils did so, compared with 26% of others, giving an attainment gap of 16%. The comparable gap at Level 4B (in reading and maths and L4 in writing) was 18%. At Level 4 (across the board) it was 20%. In this case, the gaps are slightly larger at lower attainment levels but, whereas the L4 gap has narrowed by 1% since 2012, the L5 gap has widened by 1%.
- In reading, 44% of all pupils achieved Level 5 and above, but only 21% of FSM pupils did so, compared with 48% of others, giving an attainment gap of 21%. The comparable gap at Level 4 and above was eight percentage points lower at 13%.
- In writing (teacher assessment), 31% of all pupils achieved level 5 and above, but only 15% of FSM pupils did so, compared with 34% of others, giving an attainment gap of 19%. The comparable gap at Level 4 and above was three percentage points lower at 16%.
- In grammar, punctuation and spelling (GPS), 47% of all pupils achieved Level 5 and above, but only 31% of FSM pupils did so, compared with 51% of others, giving an attainment gap of 20%. The comparable gap at Level 4 and above was two percentage points lower at 18%.
- In maths, 41% of pupils in state-funded schools achieved Level 5 and above, up 2% on 2012. But only 24% of FSM pupils achieved this compared with 44% of others, giving an attainment gap of 20%. The comparable gap at level 4 and above is 13%.
Chart 1 shows these outcomes graphically. In four cases out of five, the gap at the higher attainment level is greater, substantially so in reading and maths. All the Level 5 gaps fall between 16% and 20%.
Chart 1: Percentage point gaps between FSM and all other pupils’ attainment at KS2 L4 and above and KS2 L5 and above, 2013
It is difficult to trace reliably the progress made in reducing these gaps in English, since the measures have changed frequently. There has been more stability in maths, however, and the data reveals that – whereas the FSM gap at Level 4 and above has reduced by 5 percentage points since 2008 (from 18 points to 13 points) – the FSM gap at Level 5 and above has remained between 19 and 20 points throughout. Hence the gap between L4+ and L5+ on this measure has increased in the last five years.
There is relatively little published about KS2 excellence gaps elsewhere, though one older Government publication, a DfES Statistical Bulletin: The characteristics of high attainers (2007) offers a small insight.
It defines KS2 high attainers as the top 10%, on the basis of finely grained average points scores across English, maths and science, so a more selective but wider-ranging definition than any of the descriptors of Level 5 performance above.
According to this measure, some 2.7% of FSM-eligible pupils were high attainers in 2006, compared with 11.6% of non-FSM pupils, giving a gap of 8.9 percentage points.
The Bulletin supplies further analysis of this population of high attainers, summarised in the table reproduced below.
While Government statistical releases provide at least limited data about FSM performance at high levels in end of KS2 assessments, this is entirely absent from KS4 data, because there is no information about the achievement of GCSE grades above C, whether for single subjects or combinations.
The most recent publication: SFR05/2014: GCSE and equivalent attainment by pupil characteristics, offers a multitude of measures based on Grades G and above or C and above, many of which are set out in Chart 2, which illustrates the FSM gap on each, organised in order from the smallest gap to the biggest.
(The gap cited here for A*-C grades in English and maths GCSEs is very slightly different to the figure in the impact indicator.)
Chart 2: Percentage point gaps between FSM and all other pupils’ attainment on different KS4 measures, 2013
In its State of the Nation Report 2013, the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission included a table comparing regional performance on a significantly more demanding ‘8+ GCSEs excluding equivalents and including English and maths’ measure. This uses ‘ever 6’ rather than FSM as the indicator of disadvantage.
The relevant table is reproduced below. It shows regional gaps of between 20 and 26 percentage points on the tougher measure, so a similar order of magnitude to the national indicators at the top end of Chart 2.
Comparing the two measures, one can see that:
- The percentages of ‘ever 6’ learners achieving the more demanding measure are very much lower than the comparable percentages achieving the 5+ GCSEs measure, but the same is also true of their more advantaged peers.
- Consequently, in every region but London and the West Midlands, the attainment gap is actually larger for the less demanding measure.
- In London, the gaps are much closer, at 19.1 percentage points on the 5+ measure and 20.9 percentage points on the 8+ measure. In the West Midlands, the gap on the 8+ measure is larger by five percentage points. In all other cases, the difference is at least six percentage points in the other direction.
We do not really understand the reasons why London and the West Midlands are atypical in this respect.
The Characteristics of High Attainers (2007) provides a comparable analysis for KS4 to that already referenced at KS2. In this case, the top 10% of high attainers is derived on the basis of capped GCSE scores.
This gives a gap of 8.8 percentage points between the proportion of non-FSM (11.2%) and FSM (2.4%) students within the defined population, very similar to the parallel calculation at KS2.
Other variables within this population are set out in the table reproduced below.
Finally, miscellaneous data has also appeared from time to time in the answers to Parliamentary Questions. For example:
- In 2003, 1.0% of FSM-eligible learners achieved five or more GCSEs at A*/A including English and maths but excluding equivalents, compared with 6.8% of those not eligible, giving a gap of 5.8 percentage points. By 2009 the comparable percentages were 1.7% and 9.0% respectively, resulting in an increased gap of 7.3 percentage points (Col 568W)
- In 2006/07, the percentage of FSM-eligible pupils securing A*/A grades at GCSE in different subjects, compared with the percentage of all pupils in maintained schools doing so were as shown in the table below (Col 808W)
Table 1: Percentage of FSM-eligible and all pupils achieving GCSE A*/A grades in different GCSE subjects in 2007
- In 2008, 1% of FSM-eligible learners in maintained schools achieved A* in GCSE maths compared with 4% of all pupils in maintained schools. The comparable percentages for Grade A were 3% and 10% respectively, giving an A*/A gap of 10 percentage points (Col 488W)
The most recent post-16 attainment data is provided in SFR10/2014: Level 2 and 3 attainment by young people aged 19 in 2013 and SFR02/14: A level and other level 3 results: academic year 2012 to 2013.
The latter contains a variety of high attainment measures – 3+ A*/A grades; AAB grades or better; AAB grades or better with at least two in facilitating subjects; AAB grades or better, all in facilitating subjects – yet none of them distinguish success rates for advantaged and disadvantaged learners.
The former does includes a table which provides a time series of gaps for achievement of Level 3 at age 19 through 2 A levels or the International Baccalaureate. The measure of disadvantage is FSM-eligibility in Year 11. The gap was 22.0 percentage points in 2013, virtually unchanged from 22.7 percentage points in 2005.
In (How) did New Labour narrow the achievement and participation gap (Whitty and Anders, 2014) the authors reproduce a chart from a DfE roundtable event held in March 2013 (on page 44).
This is designed to show how FSM gaps vary across key stages and also provides ‘odds ratios’ – the relative chances of FSM and other pupils achieving each measure. It relies on 2012 outcomes.
The quality of the reproduction is poor, but it seems to suggest that, using the AAB+ in at least two facilitating subjects measure, there is a five percentage point gap between FSM students and others (3% versus 8%), while the odds ratio shows that non-FSM students are 2.9 times more likely than FSM students to achieve this outcome.
Once again, occasional replies to Parliamentary Questions provide some supplementary information:
- In 2007, 189 FSM-eligible students (3.7%) in maintained mainstream schools (so excluding sixth form colleges and FE colleges) achieved 3 A grades at A level. This compared with 13,467 other students (9.5%) giving a gap of 5.8 percentage points (Source: Parliamentary Question, 26 November 2008, Hansard (Col 1859W)
- In 2008, 160 students (3.5%) eligible for FSM achieved that outcome. This compares with 14,431 (10.5%) of those not eligible for FSM, giving a gap of 7.0 percentage points. The figures relate to 16-18 year-olds, in maintained schools only, who were eligible for FSM at age 16. They do not include students in FE sector colleges (including sixth form colleges) who were previously eligible for FSM. Only students who entered at least one A level, applied A level or double award qualification are counted. (Parliamentary Question, 6 April 2010, Hansard (Col 1346W))
- Of pupils entering at least one A level in 2010/11 and eligible for FSM at the end of Year 11, 546 (4.1%) achieved 3 or more GCE A levels at A*-A compared with 22,353 other pupils (10.6%) so giving a gap of 6.5 percentage points. These figures include students in both the schools and FE sectors. (Parliamentary Question, 9 July 2012, Hansard (Col 35W))
In September 2014, a DfE response to a Freedom of Information request provided some additional data about FSM gaps at A level over the period from 2009 to 2013. This is set out in the table below, which records the gaps between FSM and all other pupils, presumably for all schools and colleges, whether or not state-funded.
Apart from the atypical result for the top indicator in 2010, all these percentages fall in the range 6.0% to 10%, so are in line with the sources above.
|3+ grades at A*/A or applied single/double award||9.0||12.8||9.3||8.7||8.3|
|AAB+ grades in facilitating subjects||6.3||6.2|
|AAB+ grades at least 2 in facilitating subjects||9.8|
Additional evidence of Key Stage excellence gaps from a sample born in 1991
In Progress made by high-achieving children from disadvantaged backgrounds (Crawford, Macmillan and Vignoles, 2014) provides useful data on the size of excellence gaps at different key stages, as well as analysis of whether disadvantaged high achievers remain so through their school careers.
The latter appears in Part two, but the first set of findings provides a useful supplement to the broad picture set out above.
This study is based on a sample of learners born in 1991/1992, so they would presumably have taken end of KS2 tests in 2002, GCSEs in 2007 and A levels in 2009. It includes all children who attended a state primary school, including those who subsequently attended an independent secondary school.
It utilises a variety of measures of disadvantage, including whether learners were always FSM-eligible (in Years 7-11), or ‘ever FSM’ during that period. This summary focuses on the distinction between ‘always FSM’ and ‘never FSM’.
It selects a basket of high attainment measures spread across the key stages, including:
- At KS1, achieving Level 3 or above in reading and maths.
- At KS2, achieving Level 5 or above in English and maths.
- At KS4, achieving six or more GCSEs at grades A*-C in EBacc subjects (as well as five or more).
- At KS5, achieving two or more (and three or more) A levels at grades A-B in any subjects.
- Also at KS5, achieving two or more (and three or more) A levels at grades A-B in facilitating subjects.
The choice of measures at KS2 and KS5 is reasonable, reflecting the data available at the time. For example, one assumes that A* grades at A level do not feature in the KS5 measures since they were not introduced until 2010).
At KS4, the selection is rather more puzzling and idiosyncratic. It would have been preferable to have included at least one measure based on performance across a range of GCSEs at grades A*-B or A*/A.
The authors justify their decision on the basis that ‘there is no consensus on what is considered high attainment’, even though most commentators would expect this to reflect higher grade performance, while few are likely to define it solely in terms of breadth of study across a prescribed set of ‘mainstream’ subjects.
Outcomes for ‘always FSM’ and ‘never FSM’ on the eight measures listed above are presented in Chart 3.
Chart 3: Achievement of ‘always FSM’ and ‘never FSM’ on a basket of high attainment measures for pupils born in 1991/92
This reveals gaps of 12 to 13 percentage points at Key Stages 1 and 2, somewhat smaller than several of those described above.
It is particularly notable that the 2013 gap for KS2 L5 reading, writing and maths is 16 percentage points, whereas the almost comparable 2002 (?) gap for KS2 English and maths amongst this sample is 13.5%. Even allowing for comparability issues, there may tentative evidence here to suggest widening excellence gaps at KS2 over the last decade.
The KS4 gaps are significantly larger than those existing at KS1/2, at 27 and 18 percentage points respectively. But comparison with the previous evidence reinforces the point that the size of the gaps in this sample is attributable to subject mix: this must be the case since the grade expectation is no higher than C.
The data for A*/A performance on five or more GCSEs set out above, which does not insist on coverage of EBacc subjects other than English and maths, suggests a gap of around seven percentage points. But it also demonstrates big gaps – again at A*/A – for achievement in single subjects, especially the separate sciences.
The KS5 gaps on this sample range from 2.5 to 13 percentage points. We cited data above suggesting a five percentage point gap in 2012 for AAB+, at least two in facilitating subjects. These findings do not seem wildly out of kilter with that, or with the evidence of gaps of around six to seven percentage points for AAA grades or higher.
The published data provides a beguiling glimpse of the size of excellence gaps and how they compare with FSM gaps on the key national benchmarks.
But discerning the pattern is like trying to understand the picture on a jigsaw when the majority of pieces are missing.
The received wisdom is capture in the observation by Whitty and Anders that:
‘Even though the attainment gap in schools has narrowed overall, it is largest for the elite measures’
and the SMCPC’s comment that:
‘…the system is better at lifting children eligible for FSM above a basic competence level (getting 5A*–C) than getting them above a tougher level of attainment likely to secure access to top universities.’
This seems broadly true, but the detailed picture is rather more complicated.
- At KS2 there are gaps at L5 and above of around 16-20 percentage points, the majority higher than the comparable gaps at L4. But the gaps for core subjects combined are smaller than for each assessment. There is tentative evidence that the former may be widening.
- At KS4 there are very significant differences between results in individual subjects. When it comes to multi-subject indicators, differences in the choice of subject mix – as well as choice of grade – make it extremely difficult to draw even the most tentative conclusions about the size of excellence gaps and how they relate to benchmark-related gaps at KS4 and excellence gaps at KS2.
- At KS5, the limited evidence suggests that A level excellence gaps at the highest grades are broadly similar to those at GCSE A*/A. If anything, gaps seem to narrow slightly compared with KS4. But the confusion over KS4 measures makes this impossible to verify.
We desperately need access to a more complete dataset so we can understand these relationships more clearly.
This is the end of Part one. In Part two, we move on to consider evidence about whether high attainers remain so, before examining international comparisons data and related research, followed by excellence gaps analysis from the USA.
Part two concludes with a short review of how present government policy impacts on excellence gaps and some recommendations for strengthening the present arrangements.