The gap in performance between pupils from rich and poor backgrounds is stark and poses an unacceptable risk to the life chances of disadvantaged children, the chief schools inspector, Christine Gilbert, warned yesterday.
Ms Gilbert, chief executive of Ofsted, the education standards watchdog, delivered a savage indictment of the failure to close the disparity in performance when she published the inspectors' state-of-the-nation annual schools report yesterday. It was leading to an "alarming" threat to thousands of youngsters, who faced the prospect of roaming the streets without a job after quitting school at 16, she said.
Figures in the report showed that children from disadvantaged homes were five times more likely to fail to get five top-grade A* to C passes in their GCSE exams than those from more affluent backgrounds.
Her comments were seized on by opposition MPs as evidence that 10 years of New Labour had failed to tackle inequality in schools, despite ministers insisting it was a key priority. The report revealed that as many as 200,000 teenagers aged 16 and 17 had been left in limbo – without a job or a full-time education or training place.
It also showed that only 12 per cent of children in care obtained five top-grade GCSE passes – compared with a national average of 59 per cent. Of those eligible for free school meals, only one in three obtained five top-grade passes.
Twice as many 11-year-olds from poor homes also failed to master English and maths in national curriculum tests (61 per cent and 58 per cent) compared with the national average (83 per cent and 79 per cent).
"This cannot be right and we need to do more," said Ms Gilbert. "There is no quick fix but providers should learn from what works. It can't be right that 20 per cent of youngsters leave primary schools without a foundation in literacy and numeracy. This report does not pull its punches. The relationship between poverty and outcomes for youngsters is stark.
"Recurring themes are too apparent: poor attendance and low levels of basic skills hindering the learning of disadvantaged pupils; too many pupil referral units... the poor attainment and employment prospects of most children in public care; disproportionate numbers of exclusions of Black Caribbean pupils."
Schools in deprived areas were more likely to be failing – described as "inadequate" – than those serving leafier suburbs, the report said. It also highlighted continuing concern over the number of secondary schools found to be inadequate as a result of inspections. Overall, 10 per cent of secondaries and 5 per cent of primaries failed their inspections, meaning they have a year to show improvement or face closure.
Nearly half of all secondary schools (49 per cent) failed to achieve anything more than a satisfactory rating – considered not good enough by inspectors. However, the overall percentage of failing schools fell from 8 per cent to 6 per cent and the number rated outstanding rose. Because more schools were inspected last year, though, the overall number ranked inadequate rose from 520 to 552.
Nick Gibb, the Conservative spokesman on schools, said: It is unacceptable that almost half of secondary schools are rated no better than satisfactory. This is not good enough."
Lord Adonis, the Schools minister, acknowledged poverty was "a harder nut to crack".
The report also warned that schools were failing in their attempt to instil a sense of "Britishness" – a key theme espoused by Gordon Brown – into their pupils.
This year's exam league tables showed a massive range in performance between schools with a comprehensive intake serving deprived areas. The school ranked as having the best teaching standards in the country was the Academy of St Francis of Assisi, in Liverpool, the first of the Government's flagship schools to specialise in a "green" education. It was given a ranking of 1,078.7 on an index showing how much schools had improved their pupils' performance.
The worst-performing school in the GCSE league tables was Temple, in Kent, where only 2 per cent of pupils obtained five A* to C grades including maths and English.