‘Inequality in Education’ new Social Market Foundation report – expert warns caution.

Where children grow up in England is more likely to determine success or failure at school than in previous generations, a study suggests. The Social Market Foundation research examined test results of cohorts born in 1970 and 2000 and found regional differences have become much greater. Pupils’ results are highest in London and lowest in Yorkshire and Humber.

The comparisons between the generations, based on school tests in primary school and exams such as O-levels and GCSEs, indicate that location has become a much more significant factor in how high pupils are likely to achieve.

Key points highlighted in the SMF research include:

  • GCSE performance at age 16 across England and Wales shows variations between regions, with over 70% of pupils in London achieving 5 good GCSEs compared to 63% in Yorkshire & Humber.
  • The SMF finds that regional differences in attainment are already apparent by the end of primary school and they are observable even when you control for other factors such as ethnicity and income.
  • Analysis across different cohorts of children sitting exams at age 16 shows that regional inequalities have remained stubborn and in some cases worsened over the last three decades. Areas such as the North East, Yorkshire and the Humber, the West Midlands and the East Midlands have persistently under-performed, behind whilst London’s performance has surged.
  • Comparing the performance of 11-year olds born in 2000 with those born in 1970 reveals that the geographic area a child comes from has become a more powerful predictive factor for those born in 2000 compared to 1970.

Expert comment from Dr Alice Sullivan, Director of the 1970 British Cohort Study, Centre for Longitudinal Studies, UCL-IoE, who has researched educational attainment and inequalities over the past thirty years. Here she she gives her reaction to the Social Market Foundation findings:

“I’m surprised that they tried to compare ethnic trends across the three cohorts, because the numbers of ethnic minority children in the 1958 and 1970 cohorts were tiny, and insufficient for statistical analysis. It’s only in the 2000 cohort that we have substantial numbers of ethnic minority children.”

Professor Stephen Gorard, School of Education, Durham University, who commented last month following Ofsted’s claim that the North-South divide was due to poorer teaching in the North:

“The Social Market Foundation are right to draw attention to difference in school outcomes between the South, Midlands and North East. However, they are wrong to attribute this difference to the impact of location rather than pupil background.

Despite the figures they present, it is simply not true that pupil background cannot explain the differences in attainment. Poverty is greater, on average, in the North East and Midlands. This is not being picked up by the relatively small number with high levels of missing data in the two birth cohorts cited, and cannot be picked up using free school meal eligility (FSM) alone.

This is what I said when Ofsted claimed the North South divide was due to poorer teaching in the North. The same cautions should be taken on board by Nick Clegg and the SMF.”

(‘A cautionary note on measuring the pupil premium attainment gap in England’ by Stephen Gorard. British Journal of Education, Society and Behavioural Science).

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