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Unpacking Patterns of Attainment for Disadvantaged Learners

Hello and welcome to my 4 week blog series on inequalities in education. This series seeks to distil what I  have learnt through my research into inequalities between pupils who are entitled to Free school meals (a proxy measure for disadvantage) and their non FSM peers.

This week we look at the patterns around attainment and next week we will delve more deeply into the reasons behind the contrast in performance. Week three we will examine ‘what works’ in relation to reducing the gap and in the final week we will explore what St Johns’ Foundation and BaNES Council are doing to address this issue.


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Understanding Educational Inequality

Education is often hailed as the key to breaking the cycle of poverty and creating opportunities for a brighter future. However, a closer look at the data reveals persistent patterns of educational inequality, particularly for disadvantaged learners. In this blog post, we will delve into the findings of recent research on the patterns of educational attainment for disadvantaged learners, shedding light on the challenges they face throughout their school careers.

You might know that most research uses eligibility for Free School Meals in the last six years (FSM6) as a proxy measure of deprivation. However, its hugely important that we acknowledge the limitations of this measure as it may not capture all children living below the poverty line. For example the current threshold for FSM6 is an annual income of £7,400 or less, which, as you might have guessed, leaves out a significant portion of children in poverty and leads to a potential underestimation of the challenges faced by disadvantaged learners.

Patterns of Inequality

Despite decades of policy attention, the data paints a stark picture of educational inequality throughout the trajectory of a child's school career with gaps emerging as young as 11 months and the gap in attainment between disadvantaged learners and their peers persisting.

Below we see the longitudinal, persisting pattern of GCSE attainment data from 2006 and 2019. This pattern, Farquharson et al. (2022) contends is, despite decades of policy attention. They explain; “while GCSE attainment has been increasing over time, 16- year-olds who are eligible for free school meals are still around 27 percentage points less likely to earn good GCSEs than less disadvantaged peers.”




Chart 1: The gap in attainment between children from rich and poor households

Source: McNally and Tahir, 2022

Furthermore, data presented by Farquharson et al (2022) (see Chart 2 below) shows that this pattern persists across the course of a disadvantaged young person’s school career, with the gap widening between age 5 and age 16.


Chart 2: Attainment gaps between FSM pupils and their peers at different stages of the education system.

Source: Farquharson et al, 2022




 Even with increasing GCSE attainment overall, 16-year-olds eligible for free school meals remain around 27 percentage points less likely to achieve good GCSEs compared to their less disadvantaged peers.

And then what happens post-16?

Beyond age 16, pupils eligible for free school meals:

  • on average enter fewer qualifications than their non-disadvantaged peers (Tuckett et al, 2021)

  • are more likely, as high achievers, to take qualifications associated with lower prior attainment “(academic mismatch”, Maragkou 2019, cited in Tuckett et al, 2021)

  • are much less likely than their peers to go onto university (ONS, 2022)

  • are much less likely to attend one of the most selective higher education institutions than their peers (Farquharson et al, 2022)

  • earned on average £17,000 or less aged 30 years; Average earnings at all ages were lowest for free school meals recipients but the gap in earnings became larger as people got older and pay diverges at university leaving age (ONS, 2022).

Alarmingly, there is also an earnings gap among FSM and non-FSM individuals with the same level of educational qualifications.

The Legacy of Covid-19:

The COVID-19 pandemic has further exacerbated existing inequalities. Estimates suggest 1-2 months of learning loss for all students, but disadvantaged learners face additional challenges. The disadvantage gap widened during lockdown, with evidence indicating that recovery initiatives have not led to a faster rate of recovery for disadvantaged pupils (Twist et al, 2022).

1.3 Factors Associated with Inequality:


Several factors at the pupil level contribute to educational inequality. Household income, a child's ethnicity, and gender play significant roles. For example, pupils from better-off families outperform their peers at every stage of the educational journey, and there is a gender gap with girls consistently outperforming boys.


Children from ethnic minority backgrounds typically start out behind their white peers, but make much faster progress. “By age 19, all major ethnic groups are more likely than white pupils to have earned A levels or equivalent qualifications. And by age 26, white British pupils are the least likely to hold a degree and the most likely to have stopped their education at GCSE or below”. (Farquharson et al, 2022)

Common intersections of these groups also exist in the data 

Chart 3 below demonstrates the extent of the gap between pupil performance when we consider disadvantage, gender and ethnicity. This shows us that:

  • attainment of White British pupils is polarised by social class to a greater extent than any other ethnic group (White British pupils with higher social status are still one of the highest attaining groups). Asian communities in particular see a much smaller contrast in performance when their attainment is examined by social class.

  • in 2019, disadvantaged boys from white British or black Caribbean backgrounds were least likely to achieve pass marks (grade 4/C) in GCSE English and maths by some considerable margin (32% of pupils in these groups met this benchmark compared to 65% of all pupils).

  • white FSM-eligible boys are the lowest performing group overall whilst white FSM girls are the lowest-achieving group of girls. This pattern has held for some years and led the Education Select Committee in 2014 to quote Sir Michael Wilshaw as stating that ‘This is not a gender issue. Poor, low-income white British girls do very badly. So, we should stop talking about “white working class boys as if they are the only challenge…”.

  • Black Caribbean pupils from middle and high socio-economic backgrounds have substantially lower achievement than their similarly advantaged White British peers and the largest gender gap in the disadvantaged group can be seen within the Black Caribbean sample.




Chart 3: Household income, gender and ethnicity.

Source: Farquharson et al, 2022


External factors, such as the school attended and the geographical area, also influence educational outcomes.  All local authorities in London perform above the national average in the share of 11-year-olds meeting expectations in reading, writing and maths. Furthermore, the disadvantage gap in GCSE performance in Inner London is less than half as wide as that in the rest of the country. The 'London effect,' as it has come to be known as , has been attributed to a range of phenomena with researchers offering a range of counter-arguments.

As we navigate the complexities of educational inequality, the London effect awaits our scrutiny in the next weeks blog post. Stay tuned as we unravel the lessons to be learned from this phenomenon and continue our exploration into the intricate factors that shape the educational journeys of disadvantaged learners.


The contents of this blog are based on a systematic review of the research conducted by Capsule Research for Big Education who have been working on the ‘Inequalities in Education’ project co-funded by Bath and North East Somerset Council and St John’s Foundation.



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