Huge gap in reading scores between bright children in top and bottom social groups

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New research from the Institute of Education has revealed that there is a huge gap in attainment between even the ablest children in the highest and lowest socio-economic groups.

Dr John Jerrim of the Institute of Education analysed reading results of able teenagers in 23 countries.

His research shows that the reading skills of the highest-performing English and Scottish 15-year-olds from disadvantaged families are, on average, more than two years behind those of the most able pupils from privileged backgrounds. The gap in England is 2.5 years and in Scotland 2.75 years.

These gaps are twice as wide as in some other developed countries. Dr Jerrim examined the reading scores of pupils in 23 countries and found that Scotland had the biggest attainment gap between bright children from advantaged and disadvantaged homes. England had a bigger gap than 19 countries.

These findings have important implications for policies to widen access to elite universities and the professions, says Dr Jerrim. They show that focusing on providing student bursaries or internships will not be enough. It will also be vital to increase the academic achievement of the most able children from disadvantaged homes.

Dr Jerrim said: "Education policy over the last decade has focused considerable attention on improving the attainment of less able children from poor backgrounds, with some success. Now policymakers must turn their attention to reducing inequalities in educational achievement amongst the brightest children in society, to ensure that those from disadvantaged families are not left behind."

He reached these conclusions after analysing the reading scores of 9,548 English 15-year-olds who took part in the 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) study. In Scotland the reading test was taken by 2,631 pupils.

Dr Jerrim calculated the scores needed to get into the top 10 per cent of the highest and lowest of five socio-economic groups.

He said: "I was essentially comparing the test scores of children whose parents are, for example, labourers to those of the children of judges, doctors and lawyers."

He then compared the difference in their scores with the score-gap between advantaged and disadvantaged children in other countries who took the PISA tests. The PISA programme, which is widely regarded as the world's most influential education study, is managed by the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Dr Jerrim found that in England the average gap in reading scores between advantaged and disadvantaged children – not only the high-achievers -- was also about two-and-a-half years. But he adds that this is similar to the differences found in most other developed countries, such as Australia and Germany.

It is the association between family background and high achievement that seems to be stronger in England and Scotland than in most other developed countries. "A gap of two-and-a-half years even between high-performing pupils is exceptional," he says. "The only countries that had a bigger gap than England – apart from Scotland – were the United States and New Zealand."

A spokeswoman from England's Department for Education commented: "For too long, children from the poorest backgrounds have been left with the worst schools.

"That's why we have introduced the pupil premium to ensure schools are able to offer extra support to the poorest children.

"We are also transforming the worst performing schools, including primaries for the first time, with new leadership as academies and we have introduced systematic phonics to every school so that every child gets the best possible start in learning to read and write."

School Leadership Today
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