Closing the attainment gap in British education

Why does an attainment gap between rich and poor in education still exist in 2016?

It is not the fact that young people coming through the education system from a wealthy background are more knowledgeable.

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It is not because they ‘naturally’ have a higher level of ability. But is it due to the fact that young people growing up believe that?

A study released by Central YMCA in March 2016 titled: A world of good supports this suggestion. The findings here suggest that the biggest barrier to succeeding in education is coming from a low income bracket family.

It also argues that this limits their chances of securing education. This alone should send alarm bells ringing. Right now in this country the next generation of minds are being developed, ones that could change the world, in science, technology, medicine.

A study conducted in 2015 by Sutton Trust (Missing Talent Report 2015), highlighted the extent of this issue. Over a third of boys on free school meals who are in the top 10 per cent of performers at the age of 11, have fallen outside the top 25 per cent of pupils by the age of 16.

Yet immediately individuals that grow up in low income families do not believe they are good enough. On average a GCSE student from a low income bracket scores half a grade lower than a counterpart of equal ability from a medium to high income bracket. This just cannot be seen as acceptable.

The pressure and focus on academia and entrance to university compounds the stereotype that intelligence is for the wealthy. I am sure Lord Alan Sugar and Sir Richard Branson would welcome a step away from this perception.

How then, do we tackle this? Better careers advice, yes. A broader route to employment, yes. Educating learners, parents, teachers and care givers that regardless of an individual’s background they should and can have a fair shot at the career of their choice, yes.

Apprenticeships then are a key tool in driving this. The new standards being written through the trailblazer’s project are looking to restore confidence in employers the apprenticeships are fit for purpose.

They will allow employers to recognise the importance of an individual with practical skills and an ability to develop their own opinions as opposed to presenting a piece of paper with the word degree on the front.

I am not against studying at university, I am myself a university graduate. Yet both parents and siblings entered employment via an apprenticeship scheme and in a direct comparison of skills sets between myself and my siblings after completing our relevant qualifications they were streets ahead.

Communication, presentation, confidence and understanding of behaviours in the work place are skills that I lacked yet my siblings were fully competent. Very quickly they went from strength to strength as I slowly found my feet in the world of employment.

It is here apprenticeships are grossly undervalued at present. They have no financial commitment for a learner, they provide experience within a workplace and they develop the skills needed that is missing from formal education. They allow access to all and an equal opportunity for success.

The current issue is their reputation, so it is exciting to see new sectors embracing the changes. You can now take apprenticeships in areas such as nuclear engineering and train to be a solicitor without the need to go university.

The next step is for the education system to embrace these changes. The level of careers advice and guidance for our young people is shocking at present. Teachers that have had to go through university to get into their profession are expected to understand and promote opportunities for such a broad array of learners that opportunities are being missed.

They are encouraged, even pressured into railroading students to study subjects that are on offer in their own Sixth Forms (where applicable) due to funding constraints. It is this one size fits all approach that is hindering the closing of this gap.

Provide the support to allow teachers to focus on the mandatory education of our next generation. Put in place resources to allow young people to identify the careers available and aspire to achieve them. Then you will see the achievement gap close.

Young individuals from a low income bracket are not failing. We are failing them. Allow them to flourish and the achievement gap will not only disappear, but so will the ‘skills gap.’ The economy will have the chance to strengthen.

Role models for future generations will self-perpetuate a cycle of aspiration and achievement. Don’t let a whole generation slip though the net because they believe their only option is to go to university or else accept an unskilled job. 


About the author 

Ryan Palmer is the Area Lead for YMCAfit.


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