Liz Truss and the woke equalities agenda by Barnaby Lenon

This week, Liz Truss (who turns out to be the Women and Equalities Minister when she is not being the Trade Minister) made a speech repositioning the Government’s approach to equality.

Essentially, she said that there has been too much emphasis on race and gender at the expense of the more important issues of socio-economic and regional equality. And that the left-wing focus on race and gender has been largely virtue-signaling with limited actual impact.

In relation to schools specifically, research shows the following:

1) Closing gaps in terms of the relative attainment of boys, income or ethnicity is less important that raising the bar for all pupils in a school

In his 2010 study, Professor Steve Strand looked at how well different schools achieved pupil progress age 7 to 11 in relation to prior attainment, ethnicity, free school meals (FSM) and gender using an English national dataset of 530,000 pupils attending over 14,200 primary schools.

He found that no school appeared to eliminate or reverse the typical within-school attainment gaps in relation to free school meal pupils or Black Caribbean or White British pupils. Some schools were much better than others in terms of the results achieved on average by all pupils but the gap remained the same whatever the school.

Strand concludes that the same schools that are most effective for white British pupils, boys or pupils on FSM are also the most effective for black Caribbean pupils, girls and those not on FSM.  In short, there was no evidence of differential school effectiveness for different pupil types.

In a 2016 study Steve Strand analysed the national test results at age 7 and 11 of over 6000 pupils attending 57 mainstream primary schools over three successive years in a socially and ethnically diverse inner London borough. The pupil groups with the poorest progress were white British pupils on free school meals (FSM) and black Caribbean pupils, both those entitled and those not entitled to FSMs.

Differences between schools in average pupil progress were large, but there was no evidence of differential school effectiveness in relation to closing gaps relating to FSM, ethnicity or gender. All pupil groupings benefitted from attending the more effective schools to a broadly similar extent.

So more effective schools ‘raised the bar’ but did not ‘close the gap’.

Why is it that attainment gaps between rich and poor, black and white, boy or girl remain the same whether the school gets good results or bad results? The answer may be that the attainment gap has little to do with the school. It is a product of the family background. Or the answer may be that schools do things which limit their ability to close the gaps, like setting – which places the more disadvantaged children in lower sets and that reduces motivation.

It was clear that schools were perhaps wasting too much energy on ‘closing gaps’, which is very hard to do. They would be better off focusing on improving results for ALL pupils and, if they were successful, the most disadvantaged would benefit hugely.

2) Focusing too much on disadvantaged pupils misses a larger group who do badly at GCSE

Using the DfE definition of “disadvantaged pupils” (eligible for FSM at least once in the last 6 years) and not achieving grade 9-4 in both English and maths at GCSE as “doing badly”, then in 2019 60% of disadvantaged pupils did badly compared to 32% of non-disadvantaged pupils.

However, disadvantaged pupils make up only 39% of the group who “did badly”, i.e. 61% of the pupils who did not achieve 9-4 in both English and maths weren’t disadvantaged.

3) All ethnic minorities are improving with white lower income pupils doing worst.

According to the latest census (2011), about 80.5% of the UK population is white British, 2.2% is mixed, 7.5% is Asian and 3.3% is black. Of the 6.7 million pupils aged 5–16 in England, 27% were from ethnic minorities. The figure was 82% in inner London, 92.8% in Newham.

In 2015 the Department for Education published another research report by Professor Strand – Ethnicity, deprivation and educational achievement at age 16 in England: trends over time. This looks at GCSE results in terms of ethnic group, entitlement to free schools meals and gender. He showed that achievement gaps between different ethnic groups have narrowed substantially over the past 20 years. They have narrowed much more than gaps based on FSMs or gender.

In 2004, the average gap between ethnic minority students and white British (based on proportion gaining five GCSEs grade A*–C including English and maths) was 18% compared to a 7.7% gap between girls and boys and a 28% gap based on FSMs. By 2013 the ethnicity gap had fallen to 7.2%, the gender gap had risen to 10.1%, the FSMs gap was 26.7%.

Looking at individual ethnic groups, since 2004, based on five GCSE s A*– C including English and maths:

  • Indian and Chinese students have moved way ahead of white British.
  • Bangladeshi students have moved from well below to above white British despite being amongst the most socio-economically deprived.
  • Black African students have moved from below white British to being better.
  • Black Caribbean and Pakistani students nearly caught up and are now quite similar to white British, a bit below for those not on FSMs, a bit above for those on FSMs.
  • If you just look at pupils entitled to FSMs, all ethnic groups do better than white British, especially boys, and the gap is growing. This true with both the Key Stage 2 results at age 11 and GCSE results at age 16.

2019 GCSE results

4) Liz Truss is right to focus on geography

The 2020 Education Policy Institute report, State of the Nation, found that across the country, there is wide variation in the disadvantage gap at GCSE:

  • Disadvantage gaps are widest in the North, West Midlands and parts of the South.
  • In some areas, poorer pupils are over two full years of education behind their peers by the time they take their GCSEs, including in Blackpool (26.3 months), Knowsley (24.7 months) and Plymouth (24.5 months).
  • In contrast, there are very low GCSE disadvantage gaps in London, including in Ealing (4.6 months), Redbridge (2.7 months) and Westminster (0.5 months).

The extraordinary success of disadvantaged pupils in London compared to other areas is important. In the late 1990s London schools were the worst in the country. Today they outperform schools in the rest of England, achieving the highest proportion of students obtaining good GCSEs, the highest percentage of schools rated ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted and the highest GCSE attainment for pupils from poorer backgrounds. Other parts of the country can learn from London.

By Barnaby Lenon, Dean of Education at the University of Buckingham

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