No, Michael Gove, disadvantaged pupils are not better served by the Tories

Any politician who is serious about narrowing the attainment gap also needs to be serious about reducing child poverty and creating a more equal society.

Any politician who is serious about narrowing the attainment gap also needs to be serious about reducing child poverty and creating a more equal society

“A relentless focus on closing the gap between the poorest students and their peers has been at the heart of everything we’ve done in government,” declared Michael Gove to the Policy Exchange education conference last weekend.

In a speech largely overshadowed by the ongoing Trojan horse controversy, Gove spoke grandly about the “moral purpose” of his reforms which, he claimed, are helping disadvantaged pupils to succeed “more effectively than ever before.”

Not for the first time, Gove attempted to paint a picture of the Tories as the party that helps the poorest children while Labour, the party of teaching unions and the liberal education establishment, tolerates low expectations and a culture of failure for those on the lowest incomes.

“It is now the Conservatives who are the party of social justice in Great Britain,” Gove told last year’s Tory party conference.

Gove is right about one thing: the attainment gap between the poor and their better-off peers is too high. In England, pupils’ socio-economic background has a significantly higher impact on their educational attainment than the OECD average.

But Gove’s policies and those of his party in coalition are not ending “this waste of human potential” as he claims, not by any stretch of the imagination.

The data

When Gove took office, 31.4 per cent of GCSE pupils eligible for free school meals achieved five good grades including maths and English while 59 per cent of all other pupils achieved this standard – a gap of 27.6 per cent. By 2013, this gap stood at 26.7 per cent, a reduction of less than 1 per cent.

In other words, the GCSE attainment gap in England has done little more than flat-line under the coalition. As Ofsted stated in its 2013 report Unseen Children, in the period from 2007 to 2012 the gap between disadvantaged students and their better off-peers has remained “stubbornly around 27 percentage points”.

At a regional level, recent analysis of GCSE results by Demos has shown that 65 out of 152 local authorities (43 per cent) have a larger attainment gap now than when the coalition took office.

For context, research by the Institute for Education found that Labour’s policies between 1997 and 2010 led to a small reduction in the attainment gap at GSCE but that “it cannot be said to have matched the government’s aspirations”.

So neither party can claim success in this area, especially given England’s poor standing internationally in the achievement of disadvantaged pupils.

However, while Labour failed to narrow the gap substantially at a national level, one of their initiatives, the London Challenge, was phenomenally successful at narrowing the gap between rich and poor in the capital, as well as raising attainment across the board.

Between 2003 and 2010, London schools went from being the lowest performing in England to the highest, an achievement largely attributable to the Challenge programme. As Ofsted reported last year, “One of the key drivers behind the sustained improvement in London schools was the success of the London Challenge programme”.

The top ten local authorities in 2013 in terms of the gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers at GCSE are all in London, the top three being Kensington and Chelsea which has a gap of just 4.2 per cent, followed by Southwark with a 7.7 per cent gap and then Lambeth at 9.5 per cent. The national average, remember, is 27 per cent.

Gove, however, cancelled this programme shortly after coming to office along with the programme’s spin-offs in Manchester and the Black Country: these began in 2008 and had already begun to improve results. A strange decision by a man who professes to have a commitment to both social justice and evidence-based policy.

In relation to younger pupils there is less written but the data available doesn’t suggest that Gove’s policies have improved much for them either.

When assessing the ‘school readiness’ of five year olds, a key indicator of future performance, there was a reduction of just 0.7 per cent in the gap between disadvantaged children and their peers between 2010 and 2012 (the assessment measure changed in 2013 and isn’t comparable). This continues a trend of small improvements in the gap – in 2007 it was 21.1 per cent reducing to 19.5 per cent in 2010.

For pupils leaving primary school, there has been a small reduction in the attainment gap which is also in line with the trend inherited from Labour. In 2006 the gap was 25 per cent, reducing to 21.1 per cent in 2010 and then to 19 per cent by 2013.

Effect of poverty and deprivation

There is a lot of debate about the best way to measure the gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers in terms of what performance data to use, how best to define disadvantage and which social groups to compare.

On one issue, though, there is consensus: on average, poverty and deprivation has a profound effect on a child’s success, more than the school they attend. This strong link between income and performance persists across the income spectrum: the wealthier you are, the better you do.

The exact reasons for this are hotly debated, but the fact itself is not. The IPPR report Long Division summarised the academic research on this issue:

“[academic studies] generally find that about 20 per cent of variability in a pupil’s achievement is attributable to school-level factors, with around 80 per cent attributable to pupil-level factors.”

No-one is denying that a good school can make a difference, but it’s not enough to focus solely on school improvement. Any politician who is serious about narrowing the attainment gap also needs to be serious about reducing child poverty and creating a more equal society. Neither Gove nor the Tory party, it can safely be said, is serious about either.

This government’s reforms, including the real-terms cut in both in and out of work benefits, the bedroom tax, benefit sanctions and the abolition of council tax benefit for the poorest have contributed to the recent increase of 300,000 children living in absolute poverty with significant further increases in both absolute and relative poverty forecast. Also hurting the poorest families are stagnating real wages.

All of these factors have led to almost a million people needing to visit a foodbank this year, many of whom have children. This increase in the incidence and extent of child poverty will impact on these children’s future attainment.

Gove’s response to this desperate situation? He suggested that food bank use was down to people’s inability to manage their finances.

How’s that for moral purpose?

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