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Why an increase in the attainment gap really does matter

November 6, 2015

There’s been some debate about the significance of the figures on Highers results reported yesterday.  The Conservatives released figures for the number of young people from the 20% most and least deprived households achieving at least 3 As at Highers, which they identified as showing the “attainment gap” for that measure widening by just over 3 percentage points.

The full figures appear only to be available on demand, which is not so helpful.  However, from what’s been released,  the position for the percentage of  all young people from the 20% most and least deprived households gaining at least 3 As appears to be this:

Most disadvantaged Least disadvantaged
2011 2.5 17.4
2014 2.99 21.13
Change: % pts 0.49 3.73
Change: % 19.6 21.4

Looking at some of the comment thread discussion on this, there’s an argument being put quite strongly by some that to talk of an increasing gap is badly misleading,  because the  rate of improvement for each group individually is similar, at around either side of 20% (though it is still a little lower in the most disadvantaged group). It’s argued that this is more significant than the widening gap in percentage point difference between the two groups and that a story of general improvement is being negatively spun.

The problem with simply comparing the growth rate for each group is that it leaves out their very unequal starting points.  It’s rather like saying that if I was splitting £10 between 2 people,  one with an income of £10,000 and one with an income £90,000, there’d be no widening of their “wealth gap” if I were to give the first person  £1 and the second £9, because they would both get 1/10,000 of their income. Intuitively, we know unequal starting points matter.

In the case of yesterday’s figures, a 0.49 percentage point increase in the least advantaged group compared to a 3.73 percentage point increase among the most advantaged means that for every extra young person from a disadvantaged background getting at least 3 As there are now around 8 more from the most advantaged, compared to 2011.

We know that school attainment plays a major part in determining who goes into HE and within that, into which institutions and courses.  So translate that 1:8 into competition for a capped number of places in higher education and, to anyone who cares about access to HE, it becomes very clear why a widening of the gap definitely matters – notwithstanding that there has been some improvement across the board.


Because the raw figures haven’t been shared, I can’t calculate a precise ratio.  The 1:8 is a rough mid-point between (a) the result if there were the same number of young people in each group, which would give 1:7.6 [3.73/0.49] and (b)  if the proportion of young people in each group is still the same as in 2011, the data for which was published in full for a similar study by The Guardian in 2012, which gives 1:8.7.  In 2011, there were slightly more young people in the top 20% of households.

To illustrate that, this table applies the percentages in the first table above (2.5% etc) to the 2011 population figures.

Most disadv Least disadv
Total 9026 10262
3As+ 2011 226 1786
3As+ 2014 270 2168
Change 44 383

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