A new report from the Education Policy Institute (EPI), funded by the Nuffield Foundation, has said that teacher-assessed grades masked the “real” learning losses faced by disadvantaged students in particular during the pandemic.

It also found that the government has failed to improve the relative outcomes of students in long-term poverty after a decade of policy interventions.

The new study, which examines the gap in grades between disadvantaged students and their peers, finds that students in long-term poverty trail their more affluent peers by 1.6 grades at GCSE – around the same gap as in 2011.

The “disadvantage gap” is a leading measure of social mobility in England and an indicator of the government’s progress in reducing inequalities in education.

EPI researchers find that not only have large GCSE grade gaps for the most disadvantaged failed to narrow, but more students are now falling into longer term poverty.

Areas in England such as Knowsley, Blackpool and Salford have a high proportion of students trapped in long-term poverty, which is likely hindering their ability to narrow large and persistent education gaps.

The report, which comes after the government has unveiled its Levelling Up White Paper, also gives the first comprehensive picture of the impact of 2020 grades on different students – the year that saw the first switch to teacher assessed grades.

The research finds that concerns teacher assessed grades at GCSE would be biased against disadvantaged students have been largely unfounded, with poorer students seeing similar levels of grade inflation. Students with special educational needs, however, did lose out under this system.

For students in 16-19 education in college and sixth form, the disadvantage gap increased in 2020: poorer students are now 3.1 grades behind their more affluent peers, up from 2.9 grades in 2019.

The growing 16-19 education gap was driven by fewer poorer students taking A levels, which saw a bigger boost from teacher assessed grades than Applied General Qualifications, such as BTECs.

Researchers warn that the lack of progress in narrowing disadvantage gaps across different ages, the rise in students falling into long-term poverty, and entrenched regional inequalities, are likely to severely constrain the government’s “levelling up” ambitions.

The study’s authors also caution that inflated 2020 grades will significantly understate the effects of the pandemic on the “real” educational progress of students – with strong evidence of considerable underlying learning losses which are being masked by awarded grades – particularly for more disadvantaged students.

The report argues that, given that grades awarded under teacher assessments in 2020 may not fully represent students’ underlying learning, government policy must focus on interventions targeted at groups most affected by learning loss during the pandemic.

It also says the government should prioritise closing gaps for the lowest attaining and most vulnerable students and ensure that the grade increases of 2020 do not distract from the urgent task of tackling deep-rooted educational inequalities, which have failed to improve for several years.

The government should work with the HE sector to ensure students taking alternatives to A levels do not lose out when competing for university places. This is especially critical for disadvantaged students who already face significant hurdles in accessing HE.

It also urged the government to ensure that its Levelling Up Strategy tackle the social determinants, such as poverty.

Commenting on the new study, Emily Hunt, report co-author and Associate Director at the Education Policy Institute (EPI), said:

“Our research shows that despite government policy interventions, there has been a decade of failure to improve the relative outcomes of students in long-term poverty – with these students still trailing their better off peers by over a full grade and a half at GCSE.

“Not only has this education gap failed to narrow since 2011, but the proportion of poorer students falling into long-term poverty is now on the rise.

“To reverse this tide of stagnating social mobility, the government must do more to address the fundamental drivers of deep-rooted educational inequalities, including poverty.

“This is particularly critical after two years of disruption from the pandemic, where there is strong evidence of significant underlying losses that have not been reflected in students’ teacher assessed grades, with disadvantaged students losing out more.”