Poorer GCSE pupils in Bedford nearly two years behind richer classmates

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Disadvantaged secondary school pupils in Bedford are more than 18 months behind their better-off peers, new research reveals.

The Education Policy Institute said the failure to close the national attainment gap will alarm policymakers and undermine Prime Minister Boris Johnson's "levelling up" agenda.

Their annual report shows disadvantaged GCSE students in Bedford were 21 months of learning behind their better-off peers nationally in 2019.

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This has grown by 0.1 months since 2012, suggesting Bedford's poorer students are falling further behind.

School stock imageSchool stock image
School stock image

More than a fifth (22 per cent) of the area's secondary school pupils were classed as disadvantaged, meaning they were eligible for free school meals at any point in the last six years.

The figures also show that 7 per cent are defined as persistently disadvantaged – eligible for free school meals for 80 per cent or more of their school life.

Researchers at the EPI said a rise in persistent poverty had stunted progress in closing the gap nationally over the last five years, with the poorest GCSE students still an average of 18.1 months behind.

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Last year, the EPI estimated it would take over 500 years to eliminate the education gap, but this year's data suggests the gap is no longer closing at all.

David Laws, executive chairman of the think tank, said this comes despite the Government's pledge to "level up" regional inequalities.

He said: "Before the Covid crisis, disadvantaged children were around 1.5 years of learning behind other pupils, and this figure seems almost certain to have increased since the closure of schools.

“It is deeply concerning that our country entered the pandemic with such a lack of progress in this key area of social policy, and the Government urgently needs to put in place new policy measures to help poor children to start to close the gap again.”

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The education gap also exists for disadvantaged young children in Bedford, with five-year-olds trailing by 6.1 months and primary school pupils 14.8 months behind.

Jo Hutchinson, report author and director of social mobility and vulnerable learners at the EPI, said vulnerable children who have suffered abuse or neglect are at risk of falling further behind because of lockdown.

He added: "Our research shows that over the last two years an increasing number of children are living in long term poverty, and since these children are furthest behind in their learning, that is contributing to adverse trends in the national disadvantage gap.

“There is now abundant evidence that poverty and social vulnerability require urgent action both in and outside of school.”

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A Department for Education spokesman said: “Getting all children back into their classrooms full-time in September is a national priority, because it is the best place for their education, development and wellbeing.

“While the attainment gap had narrowed since 2011, many have had their education disrupted by coronavirus, and we cannot let these children lose out."

He added that the £1 billion Covid catch up package will tackle the impact of lost teaching time, with £350 million for disadvantaged students, for whom getting back to school is particularly important.