Low income pupils’ progress at secondary school

First posted on the Reach Free CPD blog on 3 May 2017 and the Herts & Bucks TSA blog on 9 June 2017.

The Government’s Social Mobility Commission recently published a report on the barriers to progress faced by low income pupils at secondary school (see Shaw et. al. 2017). It has highlighted the differing nature of the ‘progress gap’ for pupils from different backgrounds. The progress gap is the difference between pupils’ actual attainment at the end of secondary school and their estimated attainment (as projected from their attainment at the end of primary school). By using data from the National Pupil Database, the Commission’s report explores how a range of factors affect the progress gap, such as parental income and academic qualifications. The report also brings together findings from existing research and literature on low income pupils’ attainment to explore a range of other causal factors affecting their progress at school, such as parental engagement. Interestingly, the report controversially challenges some of the perceived wisdom that setting and streaming benefits pupils. It also questions the tendency to focus intervention on pupils at KS4, especially Year 11.

The report, perhaps unsurprisingly, concludes that: “pupils who make less progress at secondary school are less likely to go onto higher education, whilst those with GCSE scores below national benchmarks may find their career choices limited” (p.2). It then laments that, “low income pupils would achieve far more highly if they progressed as rapidly at secondary school level as their better off peers” (ibid). Of course, it highlights that the material consequences of low income pupils’ poverty cannot be underestimated and that these pupils are more likely to be in care, to develop special educational needs and less likely to partake in activities that support their learning outside school. This reflects previous studies into social deprivation and attainment (see, for example, Perry and Francis, 2010). However, the authors also emphasise that schools can play a part in improving these pupils’ outcomes. The report, therefore, explains a number of factors that hinder progress and then makes a number of recommendations in order to close the progress gap for low income pupils.

The hindrances to progress include:

Pupil factors

These focus on pupils’ own characteristics and behaviours. The report shows that the Free School Meal (FSM) gap in secondary progress varies substantially between different ethnic groups. For example, White British pupils show the largest gap between FSM pupils and non-FSM pupils, whereas Black African and Chinese groups show the lowest. Interestingly, low income Black African, Chinese, Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and White Other pupils make above average progress. The report suggests that parental engagement and the fact that these groups tend to reside in urban areas are key reasons why the gap is lowest. Gender, on the other hand, accounts for a very small amount of variation in secondary school progress between pupils. However, the report does mention that boys’ progress is limited due to factors such as behaviour, conduct and attitudes to school work.

Parental and family factors

The report seems to state the obvious here. After reviewing the literature on this issue, it suggests that, “parents in low income households are less likely to be able to afford learning materials, such as books or laptops, or private tutoring” (p. 43). The authors go on to highlight that there is a “wealth of evidence to suggest that low income pupils have a home environment that offers less effective support for learning” (ibid). Here, pupils are less likely to have regular homework routines, regulated leisure time, take part in academically enriching activities outside of school and have parents that promote positive attitudes to learning and school. The report arguably mirrors similar work on the social class and attainment (see, for example, Bernstein, 2002).

Within school factors

Although most secondary schools still band pupils by ability through setting and streaming, the report found evidence that these practices hold pupils with low prior attainment back and that these pupils are likely to come from low-income households. Also relevant here, is evidence that across the country, teachers have lower expectations of low income pupils than their peers. This again mirrors plenty of sociological research into labelling theory (see, for example, Hargreaves 1975). In addition, the report was further critical of most established practices in secondary schools, as it stated that schools’ focus on GCSE results as a measure of their performance has led them to target resources (time, teachers and interventions) at KS4 pupils, which is too late. The report argues that addressing pupils’ lack of progress in KS3 would in all likelihood make an important contribution to reducing the gap between low income pupils and the rest.

Between school factors

Although outstanding schools secure higher levels of progress for their pupils; those in which low income pupils make the most progress are both outstanding and have particularly high or low proportions of low income pupils. The former schools are more likely to have a culture that encourages pupils and staff to see that low income pupils are capable of making good progress. This is in addition to practices such as tracking progress data, intervening when pupils’ progress drops off and ensuring that SEND provision is high quality. The report therefore states the government (and schools) need to get high quality teachers to work in schools with high numbers of low income pupils, prioritise high quality teaching of SEND, improve specialist services for these pupils (including mental health), reduce exclusions, and ensure that schools are funded adequately in order to have the resources they need to meet low income pupils’ needs.

Therefore, the report recommends that:

  • Schools must ensure that resources are targeted at KS3 and Year 7 pupils making the transition from primary school, to the same level or beyond the resources targeted at KS4;
  • Schools should develop a culture of universally high expectations, and practices that support those expectations;
  • Schools should make regular use of data to analyse progress, in order to intervene as early as possible when low income pupils’ progress stagnates or drops off;
  • Heads of departments and senior leaders should exercise great caution in using setting and streaming practices that can negatively impact on low income pupils;
  • All staff in school, particularly school leaders, should prioritise support for pupils with SEND, for example by providing CPD which improves teachers’ skills and confidence in providing ‘quality-first’ teaching in every classroom;
  • All school staff should improve their understanding of pedagogical approaches that support low prior attainers and low income pupils;
  • Senior leaders should reduce exclusion, particularly of low income pupils;
  • Secondary schools should provide early and regular careers guidance that makes clear the links between progress at school and the freedom to choose from a wide range of careers. (See pp. 45-46).

The Social Mobility Commission is an advisory, non-departmental public body established under the Life Chances Act 2010 as modified by the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016. It has a duty to assess progress in improving social mobility in the United Kingdom and to promote social mobility in England. It currently consists of four commissioners and is supported by a small secretariat.


Bernstein, B. (2002) “Educational Codes and Social Control” in British Journal of Sociology of Education, 23: 4.

Hargreaves, D. G., Hester, S. K., Mellor, F.J. (1975) Deviance in Classrooms.London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Perry, E. and Francis, B. (2010) The Social Class Gap for Educational Achievement: a review of the literature. London: RSA.

Shaw, B., Baars, S. and Menzies, L., Parameshwaran, M and Allen, R. (2017) Low Income Pupils’ Progress at Secondary School. London: DfE.

The featured image is from WikiCommons and used here under a Creative Commons license. 

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