Culture / Education / Vanessa O'Donnell

The Income Educational Attainment Gap: The Seemingly Intractable Problem

The income educational attainment gap has scarred the British education system for generations and has consistently attracted attention from the media, politicians and educational professionals alike. Despite years of education reforms we are still attempting to uncover the formula which will enable us to deliver an excellent education to every individual regardless of their ability or background. Children in receipt of free school meals (the government’s indicator for disadvantage) are approximately half as likely as their peers to achieve 5 A*-C grades at GCSE and are two and a half times less likely to reach the expected standard at the Foundation Level.

Not only is a thriving education system vital for a productive and dynamic economy, but education has also come to be regarded as the gateway to success in an increasingly competitive job market. Consequently it is more important than ever before to ensure children are provided with a good start in life, which means this issue must be responded to promptly and successfully. The pupil premium is the government’s flagship policy to deal with the income educational attainment gap and provides additional support to schools which admit the most financially disadvantaged students. This takes the form of a £600 supplement for all students on free school meals. Although it is too early to judge the success of the Pupil Premium it is not too soon to value the potential contribution which this policy could make towards remedying this issue.

Research has shown that there are a multitude of factors contributing to the income educational attainment gap and the main themes surrounding this issue include income inequality, the home learning environment and school provision. Whilst a school plays a key role in translating a pupil’s potential into success through the quality of teaching provision and the leadership provided in the classroom, it is financial inequality that is often regarded as lying at the heart of the income educational attainment gap. Family income continues to be the best indicator of a child’s performance in school and the capacity which parents have to provide their children with basic needs such as a nutritious diet and educational resources to develop their learning is of crucial importance. Research has also shown that a vast amount of children’s learning occurs outside the classroom and the value which families place on education, the degree of support in the home which children receive in relation to their learning, as well as the expectations parents hold for their achievements are all key to their progress. Whilst there is no consensus surrounding the main causes of the income educational attainment gap it has become increasingly clear that any search for a ‘magic bullet’ in relation to the issue has been conducted in vain.

Although the Pupil Premium does hold promise for boosting the chances of our most disadvantaged younger generations, it is also completely inadequate to respond to the sheer scale of the problem faced. While the debate on which factor holds the most influence over a child’s educational outcomes continues, what has now become clear is that policy interventions designed to respond to this issue should not  adopt a single policy focus. Whilst attempts to raise attainment levels within schools have so far been focused on extra investment within schools, efforts to close the income educational attainment gap cannot and should not be exclusive to this aspect of a child’s educational experience. Achieving success in narrowing the income attainment gap is likely to result from a variety of measures which place children, families and schools at the centre of the solution. Therefore it should not be a matter of choice between which factors receive attention from policy makers; it should be a matter of how the Government can intervene within the whole range of areas which impact upon attainment as effectively as possible. Only when the government adopt this strategy is a sustainable and successful remedy likely to emerge.

 Vanessa O’Donnell

Interact UK –


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