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The disadvantage gap: children of austerity or children of adversity?

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 6 September 2022

chezbeate / Pixabay

Neil Kaye.

Last month, hundreds of thousands of young people nervously opened their GCSE results – the first time in the post-pandemic world that such exams had been sat by a full cohort of Year 11 students. Whilst the headlines focused on the apparent fall in average grades from those of the previous two years, the results also highlight a seemingly-inevitable outcome of our present education system: the persistence of a ‘disadvantage’ attainment gap.

A recent IFS report concluded that, “despite decades of policy attention, there has been virtually no change in the ‘disadvantage gap’ in GCSE attainment over the past 20 years”. Whilst some improvement has been noted, modelling by the Education Policy Institute (EPI) from before the pandemic observed that “at the current rate of progress, it would take over 500 years for this gap to close completely at the end of secondary school” (Lupton & Hayes, 2021).

So, is this gap in attainment inevitable? Is it ‘baked’ into the system? Are the policies of successive governments doomed to failure, or have they been scuppered by a litany of exogenous challenges – the financial crisis, Brexit and the pandemic?

My latest research, which I am presenting today at the BERA Annual Conference in Liverpool, has examined the socioeconomic attainment gap in England from a cumulative, longitudinal and comparative perspective to explore how disadvantage impacts upon young people’s educational outcomes and how it might best be tackled to narrow the gap.

I use rich cohort study data to look at how exposure to socioeconomic disadvantage shapes young people’s experiences and affects year-groups of students as they go through the education system. Linking data from these studies to administrative data, it is also possible to assess the impact that such factors have on their attainment.

A cross-cohort analysis using the Next Steps and Millennium Cohort Study compared two year-groups of young people (those who sat their GCSEs in 2006 and those who took these exams in 2017), with a particular focus on students’ exposure to socioeconomic risk factors.

Importantly, these two cohorts undertook their secondary education either side of a major macroeconomic shock – the 2008 financial crisis, which led directly to significant austerity cuts in public spending across the board. Examining the relative effect of disadvantage on educational attainment on these two cohorts provides some insight on the impact of austerity on young people’s education.

The results of this analysis were unsurprising in some respects: the attainment gap persists and the detrimental effect of exposure to risk factors on attainment is clear. What is more, the effect of multiple disadvantage is cumulative – individual indicators of disadvantage cluster and are cyclical. Young people experiencing multiple risk factors experience substantially worse outcomes than their more advantaged peers and the gap, already clear at the end of primary school, widens at every level of risk across secondary education.

The effect of austerity, however, appeared to be negligible and, in fact, the attainment gap, on average, narrowed between the two cohorts, even as real-terms spending on education fell. It is possible (perhaps even probable), that the effect of austerity cuts – not just to education but across the range of social policy areas – will be most keenly felt by yet-younger cohorts of students, those who are only just beginning their school careers (and who will have the impacts of Brexit and the pandemic to contend with as well).

Perhaps, though, government policies that have sought for so many decades to reduce the gap between disadvantaged students and their more affluent peers, are not as tied to macroeconomic conditions as previously assumed.

With political will, governments can tackle the root cause of educational inequalities, but they need to do this by addressing the structural inequalities that pervade society. Reducing young people’s exposure to adversities is the surest way of raising attainment for the most disadvantaged.

This should be one of the key priorities for our new prime minister and by adopting a more holistic approach to reducing educational inequalities, I am hopeful that narrowing the attainment gap will take less than the EPI’s projected half-a-millennium of progress.

Forthcoming paper: Kaye, N. (in press). Children of austerity or children of adversity? The cumulative impact of socioeconomic adversity on educational attainment during austerity, Research in Social Stratification and Mobility.




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