Latest Welsh Government statistics published today show that at the end of the Foundation Phase, the gap has narrowed between the attainment of pupils eligible for free school meals and those who are not. In contrast the gap at key stage 4 has widened for the first time since 2010. Although the attainment of both groups of pupils improved in the last year, the widening of the gap could be explained by pupils not eligible for free school meals experiencing a greater improvement in their attainment than those pupils eligible for free school meals in this year.
Since 2008 the Welsh Government has had three interrelated priorities for its education policy: improving literacy levels; improving numeracy levels; and reducing the impact of poverty on educational attainment. More recently, in 2013, the Minister for Education and Skills referred to closing the attainment gap for children from low income households as the ‘top priority’ for his department. There is a strong link between achievement and pupil’s entitlement to free school meals. The gap in performance between pupils entitled to free school meals (FSM) and their peers (non-FSM) increases as pupils get older.
The Welsh Government’s targets
The Welsh Government’s Building Resilient Communities: Taking Forward the Tackling Poverty Action Plan, published in July 2013, includes two targets: one at the end of the Foundation Phase and one at key stage 4.
Foundation Phase target
The Foundation Phase indicator measures the percentage of pupils achieving the expected outcomes in teacher assessments at age 7. Set in 2012, the Welsh Government’s target is:
‘Target: To narrow the gap in attainment levels between learners aged 7 eligible for free school meals and those that are not eligible for free school meals, who achieve the expected levels at the end of the Foundation Phase, as measured by the Foundation Phase Indicator, by 10 per cent by 2017. The difference between e-FSM and non-FSM attainment in 2012 was 18.3 per cent.’
In summary, the target is to reduce the gap by 1.83 percentage points over 6 years, which is 10 per cent of the original 18.3 per cent gap recorded in the year 2011/2012. Latest published statistics show that the gap between FSM and non FSM pupils was 16.3 percentage points in 2014, this represents a narrowing of the gap by 1.4 percentage points compared with 2012/13.
During a scrutiny session in the National Assembly for Wales’ Children, Young People and Education Committee, the Minister conceded that this target was not ambitious enough saying that ‘[…] we need a new one that stretches us beyond our comfort zone [..]’. The Welsh Government has stated it intends to do this following the publication of today’s results.
Key Stage 4 Target
Set in 2012, the Welsh Government’s target is:
‘Target: To improve the overall attainment levels of students eligible for free school meals, measured as the proportion of learners eligible for free school meals at age 15 who achieve Level 2 inclusive at Key Stage 4 (GCSE grade C or above in English or Welsh and Mathematics or equivalent), to 37 per cent by 2017. In 2012 it was 23.4 per cent.’
In summary, this target measures the performance of the FSM cohort, rather than the gap in attainment that is measured for the Foundation Phase Target.
In 2013/14, at Key Stage 4, 27.8 per cent of FSM pupils achieved the Level 2 threshold (including a GCSE A*-C in English/ Welsh and Maths) compared to 61.6 per cent of non-FSM pupils. This latest data shows that the gap in attainment has widened between 2012/13 and 2013/14 after a narrowing of the gap in the previous three years (2010/11 to 2012/13).
The performance of FSM pupils has improved by 4.4 percentage points since the target was set in 2011/12 and their performance needs to increase by a further 9.2 percentage points over the next three years to meet the Welsh Government target.
UK Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission
The UK Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission second annual State of the Nation Report, published in October 2014, stated:
‘We are especially concerned that poor pupils in Wales lag behind those elsewhere in the UK with only 26 per cent of Welsh children who are eligible for free school meals achieving five good GCSEs (including English and maths) compared with 38 per cent of children eligible for free school meals in England.’
It also said:
‘Better-off pupils are more than twice as likely as those eligible for FSM to achieve five good GCSEs (including English or Welsh and mathematics).The attainment of Welsh children eligible for FSM is lower than in all but six of the 152 local authority areas in England. This is unacceptable and means that too many poor children in Wales are being let down by the existing schools system. Change is urgently needed.’
The report of the Children, Young People and Education Committee’s Inquiry into Educational Outcomes for Children from low income households is due to be published shortly.
Article by Sian Thomas, National Assembly for Wales Research Service.