NFER – Disadvantage limits pupil achievement at every level of English society, says new research

The impact of the socio-economic background of pupils in England on their mathematics performance can be seen from the most to least disadvantaged, but many other factors are relatively more important to pupil performance in England than in other countries, according to a new report published today by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER).

NFER researchers analysed detailed data from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) that provide a unique perspective on the impact of disadvantage on pupils in England¹.

Among the findings in today’s report, Is mathematics education in England working for everyone2:

·       There are a range of socio-economic factors that have a bearing on pupils’ performance in mathematics and the gap between the most and least disadvantaged pupils is equivalent to over three years’ schooling3.

·       There are greater differences in attainment between pupils of high and average socio-economic status than between pupils of average and low socio-economic status.

·       Disadvantaged pupils who perform better than average, given their socio-economic background, tend to be autumn-born, are more confident in their abilities and are less likely to play truant.

·       The patterns of performance in England have changed little over the years and examination of other countries’ data suggests that they too have found it very difficult to reduce the impact of socio-economic background on performance.

·       Many factors other than socio-economic background also affect performance such as pupil characteristics and the impact of individual schools. These other factors are relatively more important to pupil performance in England than in other countries.

The report makes a number of recommendations which include:

·        nationally, better definitions and measurement of disadvantage would benefit policy and thus pupils,

·        summer-born pupils need a strategy to ensure they are not left behind,

·        further research would be beneficial to understand better the characteristics of pupils that perform better than their background would predict,

·        schools should be further supported in tackling underperformance of disadvantaged pupils.

Ben Durbin, Head of International Education at NFER, says: “Successive governments have, quite rightly, sought to address the gap in educational outcomes between pupils from different socio-economic backgrounds.  Most recently, this includes the UK Prime Minister Theresa May articulating her vision for ‘a country that works for everyone’.

“We have found that disadvantage is widespread, affecting a much broader range of the population than is usually considered. This could limit the effectiveness of policy that focuses solely on low income families. International comparisons can be helpful, and in England there are a wide range of factors other than socio-economic background that are relatively more important to pupil performance than in other countries. This is good news, and supports previous NFER research demonstrating the difference that schools can make to improving outcomes for disadvantaged pupils.”

NFER has today also published a second short briefing on the PISA 2015 results which compares and contrasts the performance of the four UK nations, called: Key insights from PISA 2015 for the UK nations.


Notes for editors

1    TIMSS 2015 results were released on 29 November 2016 at timssandpirls.bc.eduPISA 2015 results were released on 6 December 2016 on the OECD’s site.

2    Wheater, R., Durbin, B., McNamara, S. and Classick, R. (2016). Is mathematics education in England working for everyone? NFER analysis of the PISA performance of disadvantaged pupilsSlough: NFER.

3    These include economic factors related to family income, housing and benefits; social factors such as ties to the local community; and cultural factors such as parental education.

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