Staggering poverty-based gulf in Scottish education

Date: 20th February 2017
Category: Child poverty

Children born into poor families are more than two years behind peers with wealthy parents in maths, science and reading by the age of 15, according to new analysis.

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

'Global Gaps' by Dr John Jerrim of the UCL Institute of Education (IoE) and Education Datalab analyses the 2015 test scores from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) PISA tests to assess how well the UK's schools are doing for the top 10% of pupils. It shows 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.

Previous research by the Sutton Trust found that over a third (36%) of bright but disadvantaged boys seriously underachieve at age 16. 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.

To support this, the Trust wants to see schools made accountable for the performance of their most able pupils, in the same way that they are for pupils who are eligible for pupil premium funding. The government could support this by reporting Progress 8 figures for highly able boys and girls in league tables.

Schools that have already developed a proven programme of support for their brightest pupils should be encouraged to support other schools in their region where highly able pupils underperform. They should also be invited to consider whether they are able to deliver a programme of extra-curricular support to broaden horizons and raise aspirations for children living in the wider area.

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."

Dr John Jerrim, author of the research brief, 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."