Following this week’s publication of DfE data on KS4 attainment in 2021, we have updated our previous analysis of the disadvantage gap. This has shown that, across England, the disadvantage gap in Attainment 8 has grown, to the largest on record. The gap between disadvantaged and other pupils is now almost a grade and a half per GCSE.
Throughout this analysis, we have calculated the disadvantage gap as the average Attainment 8 of disadvantage pupils in state-funded schools in the region/local authority minus the average Attainment 8 of all other pupils in state-funded schools in that area. For example, disadvantaged pupils in London have an average Attainment 8 of 46.7, and all other pupils in London have an average Attainment 8 of 57.8, so the disadvantage gap is -11.1. A negative gap therefore means that disadvantaged pupils have a lower average Attainment 8 than their peers.
England’s disadvantage gap
Figure 1 – Disadvantage gap in Attainment 8 in England
While the disadvantage gap in England has been persistent and large, 2021 saw the largest widening of the gap since the Attainment 8 measure was introduced in 2016. A gap of 14.4 points means that, across the qualifications included in Attainment 8, disadvantaged pupils have been scoring an average of almost a grade and a half lower per Attainment 8 entry than their peers.
The growth of the disadvantage gap has been driven by a 1.0 point improvement in the average Attainment 8 among other pupils, compared with just a 0.1 points improvement for disadvantaged pupils. This follows widely reported concern that disadvantaged pupils would be unfairly treated by the 2021 teacher assessed grading system.
Local authority and regional disadvantage gaps
Figure 2 – Interactive map of the 2021, 2020 and 2019 disadvantage gaps by region and local authority
Note – a positive ‘Diff. from previous year’ means the disadvantage gap has narrowed. For example a change from -10.5 to -10.0 means a ‘Diff. from previous year’ of +0.5.
- London, again, has the smallest regional disadvantage gap, at -11.1, slightly wider than the gaps in both 2020 and 2019
- The disadvantage gap widened in every region, with the largest change in the North East and East of England (1.4 points wider than 2020)
- As in 2020 and 2019, the South East had the largest regional disadvantage gap, growing to -17.6 in 2021
Once again, the size of the disadvantage gap varies greatly between local authorities. Despite public and government attention on the disadvantage gap, there are only 11 local authorities with disadvantage gaps of less than a whole grade per Attainment 8 entry (-10.0 points), down from 20 last year. Nine of these 11 local authorities are in London. As in prior years, local authorities in urban areas of London, Manchester, and Birmingham tend to have smaller disadvantage gaps than large rural local authorities.
- The disadvantage gap narrowed from 2020 in just 30 local authorities in England, while widening in well over 100
- Islington’s disadvantage gap shrunk by 4.9 points to -4.6 in 2021. This is the largest narrowing from 2020 across all local authorities and is the second smallest gap in England. This gap means an average difference between disadvantaged and other pupils of just under half a grade per Attainment 8 entry
- The two local authorities with the largest disadvantage gaps in 2021, Buckinghamshire and Southend-on-Sea, had gaps of over 20 points, meaning an average gap of more than two grades between disadvantage and other pupils. These local authorities also had some of the largest gaps in 2020 and 2019
- The narrowest 10 local authority disadvantage gaps are in London local authorities, Sandwell and Luton, all urban areas
- As in 2020, 14 of the 20 local authorities with the smallest disadvantage gaps are in London. All but five London local authorities have a narrower disadvantage gap than the England average
- However, within London there is a large difference between local authorities, with most inner London local authorities having relatively small gaps, while some more suburban local authorities like Sutton, Bromley, and Kingston upon Thames have some of the largest gaps in England. Strikingly, the disadvantage gap in Sutton is over 4 times as large as the gap in Tower Hamlets.
In 2020 we pointed out that, despite the concerns, the introduction of teacher assessed grades had not led to a widening of the disadvantage gap. In 2021 however, the gap has grown to the largest since the Attainment 8 measure was introduced. Further research should explore the possible roles of the grading system, bias, and differential learning experiences over the pandemic in the widening of the gap between disadvantaged and other pupils.
As in 2020, local authorities in the major cities, particularly London, continue to have smaller gaps than those in rural areas. However, as we said in 2020, even within cities like London the average gap remains large, at over a grade per entry, and many local authorities have much larger gaps than that. As in 2020 and 2019, a very large majority of local authorities across England have a gap of more than one grade per entry between disadvantaged and other pupils. There is still clearly much more work to be done across England to close the gap in attainment between disadvantaged pupils and their peers at KS4.