Breaking research

Education reforms deepening divide between high and low achieving pupils

*** Reposted with permission from University of Reading ***

Education reforms designed to encourage pupils in English schools to study more ‘academic’ subjects have instead deepened the divide between high- and low-achieving students, new research suggests.

In a paper published in Research Papers in Education, academics from the University of Reading and Oxford have used four years of data to highlight inequalities in the access to History at Key Stage 4.

The team reveal that two reforms to introduce the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) and to make GCSEs harder in a bid to tackle grade inflation have done the opposite of their intention by creating a system where students with lower prior attainment are less likely to study History.

Dr Richard Harris, an Associate Professor at the Institute of Education at the University of Reading said:

“If Government-led reforms aimed to provide more equitable access to so-called ‘academically-rigorous’ subjects like History, our research shows that those at the most disadvantaged end are as likely as every to be missing out.

“The results are a two-tier system that limits the ability of students from lower socio-economic status areas from benefitting from the vision that the EBacc was designed to support.

“By implementing a series of reforms to toughen History GCSE testing and making accountability measures more difficult, schools in poorer areas are not submitting their students who may benefit most from subjects seen to be crucial in improving social mobility.”

The research found that students at schools in lower socio-economic status areas are less likely to be encouraged by their school to study history unless they can demonstrate that they are likely to get good results. The authors warn that incentives for schools to dissuade students from choosing History at KS4 may potentially contributing to lower social mobility.

Dr Harris said:

“As History is seen as a ‘facilitating’ subject which supports entry into more prestigious higher education institutions, the impact of the reforms instigated by the coalition Government are undermining other attempts to widen access and participation to the top Universities by restricting off History as an option.

“While the English Baccalaureate may have been seen as a silver bullet for promoting social mobility and increasing academic performance in desirable subjects, this option continues to exclude some pupils who would benefit most from studying the subjects it provides.”

Full citation:

Harris, R., Courtney, L.. Ul-Abadin, Z., and Burn, K., 2019, Student access to the curriculum in an age of performativity and accountability: an examination of policy enactment, Research Papers in Education. DOI: 10.1080/02671522.2019.1568528

The article will be freely available once the embargo has lifted via the following link:

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