The attainment gap between poorer pupils and their better-off classmates is just as large now as it was 20 years ago.
The study found that disadvantaged pupils start school behind their better-off peers, and those inequalities persist through their school years and beyond – eventually having an impact on earnings.
There is overwhelming evidence that the education system in England leaves too many young people behind, and despite decades of policy focus, there has been little if any shift in the gaps in educational attainment between children from different backgrounds.
The report said: “Despite decades of policy attention, there has been virtually no change in the ‘disadvantage gap’ in GCSE attainment over the past 20 years. While GCSE attainment has been increasing over time, 16-year-olds who are eligible for free school meals are still around 27 percentage points less likely to earn good GCSEs than less disadvantaged peers.”
At the start of their educational journey, just 57% of English pupils eligible for free school meals reached a good level of development at the end of reception in 2019, compared with 74% of their better-off peers, the report notes.
Fewer than half of disadvantaged children reached expected levels of attainment at the end of primary school, compared with nearly 70% of their better-off peers. Of those who do achieve the expected level, just 40% of disadvantaged pupils go on to receive good GCSEs in English and maths, compared with 60% of better-off students.
Perhaps the biggest failure of the education system, the report suggests, is that for those leaving school with poor GCSEs, there is a lack of a clear path and “second chances”, leaving millions disadvantaged throughout their lifetime.
The report finds the relationship between family background and attainment is not limited to the poorest, but educational performance improves as family income goes up. Just over 10% of young people in middle-earning families gained at least one A or A* grade at GCSE, compared to a third of pupils from the wealthiest tenth of families.
These inequalities lead to vast gaps in earning, the report says, pointing out that by the age of 40 the average UK employee with a degree earns twice as much as someone qualified to GCSE level or below.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, added: “Government policy is in a rut of meaningless targets, empty rhetoric and pitiful levels of funding"