IOE - Faculty of Education and Society


New research reveals a three year attainment gap between poor pupils and their better-off peers

9 February 2017

School boy taking test

Bright but poor pupils lag behind their bright but better-off classmates by around two years and eight months in maths, science and reading, according to new research by the UCL Institute of Education (IOE).

The research, conducted by Dr John Jerrim on behalf of the Sutton Trust, reveals that the attainment gaps within the most able 10% of pupils are even bigger for girls than they are for boys, standing at about three years in science and reading.

Dr Jerrim analysed the 2015 test scores from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) PISA tests to assess UK schools' performance for the top 10% of pupils. The results show that socio-economic gaps between high achieving pupils are significant throughout much of the developed world.

While England's highest achievers score above the median score for OECD countries in maths, science and reading, bright pupils in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland perform, on average, worse. Wales performs particularly poorly, with only the highest achievers in Chile, Turkey and Mexico getting lower scores in reading and maths. The mathematics skills of highly able pupils in Scotland have also declined since 2009.

The socio-economic gap in science for bright girls in England is equivalent to three years of schooling, eight months greater than that for boys, while for reading the three year gap is nine months greater than that for boys. There is no significant gender difference in maths, with a gap of around 2 years and 9 months for both girls and boys.

Speaking of the research, Dr Jerrim said:

"While England's brightest pupils score around average in international tests - and better in science - this analysis shows that there are some very big socio-economic gaps in attainment between the brightest pupils from poor and better-off homes. There are also some very big challenges in Scotland and Wales highlighted by the research."

To address the gaps identified by today's report, the Sutton Trust is calling on the government to establish a highly able fund to support the prospects of high attainers in comprehensive schools.

The Trust believes that ring-fenced funding, where high-potential pupils are tracked and monitored, would help to improve social mobility by widening access to top jobs and universities.

Sir Peter Lampl, Founder and Chairman of the Sutton Trust and Chairman of the Education Endowment Foundation, said:

"It is staggering that at age 16 bright but poor pupils lag behind their rich classmates by almost 3 years.  This results in a huge waste of talent which is why we at the Sutton Trust are calling on government to establish a Highly Able Fund.

"High potential pupils would be monitored and given specific support.  This would improve social mobility at the top by widening access to leading universities and to top jobs."

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