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Poorer students in England are up to three A-level grades behind wealthier students.

The new study finds that the disadvantage gap – the gap in educational attainment between poorer students and their peers – is substantial during the 16-19 education phase, with poorer students continuing to see far worse educational outcomes than their better-off peers.

To date, most existing research on the disadvantage gap in education has focused almost entirely on the outcomes of pupils at secondary school level and below. There has been very little understanding of what the gap is after this age, for those older students enrolling in sixth form or college.

The EPI research, which is based on an entirely new, provisional methodology, brings into sharp focus the extent of educational inequality among older students at this critical period in their lives, just as they enter adulthood.

The disadvantage gap at this education phase is found to vary considerably across the country: poorer students are the equivalent of five whole A level grades behind their more affluent peers in Knowsley, North Somerset and Stockton-on-Tees, while in many London areas poorer students are level with or even ahead of their more affluent peers.

The 16-19 education phase includes students in England in sixth forms and colleges, and covers students taking qualifications including A levels, and vocational, technical and lower-level qualifications.

With poorer students shown to face further attainment losses at this phase, on top of those previously experienced in school, the new findings also provide evidence for the need for new interventions aimed at reducing the gap in 16-19 education.

To prevent disadvantaged sixth form and college students from falling further behind, researchers determine that there is a strong case for additional government funding for 16-19 education.

This targeted funding is urgently needed to address learning losses caused by the pandemic, which are likely to disproportionately fall on the poorest, and which will have likely exacerbated the already large disadvantage gap among students at this stage of education.

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