Attainment Gap: A teacher's guide

Paul Main

What practical steps can classrooms take to promote the closing of the attainment gap?

What is the attainment gap?

A gap in educational performance or achievement between subgroups of students, especially on basis of socioeconomic status, ethnicity/race, gender, special educational needs and disability is called the attainment gap. For state-funded schools in the UK, this way of measuring outcomes for children has become an important metric. Accountability measures including pupil premium funding mean that English schools need to demonstrate how specific activities for children are helping poorer pupils catch up. Education providers have to show how they are promoting equality and advancing the life chances of those who are most vulnerable in society.

The average learning loss during the pandemic school closures was more significant for children from poor backgrounds. This learning gap between different cohorts of pupils showed how schools can transform children's lives. The academic activities that are coordinated in school settings help students overcome the barrier to learning outcomes they would face without appropriate interventions. The Education Endowment Foundation provide schools with information about the evidence-based approaches that can have a profound positive impact on a child's education. And this article, we will look at how state-funded schools can maximise the impact they can have on the most vulnerable students.

What are the factors affecting attainment in education?

There are many factors affecting attainment in education. Issues with nutrition, housing, clothing and transport affect access to education and impact a student’s ability to learn. The cost associated with resources, school trips, uniforms, and other extras further enhance inequalities, as well as access to computer devices and the internet.

The difference in funding levels for schools also indicates that the schooling experience of students from deprived areas is with less experienced teachers and is not as well-resourced.

Teachers’ choices for leading classes, class size and how children are streamed also affect learning. Even other children within a classroom can affect the attainment of children.

The largest attainment gap exists between young people and children eligible for free school meals and those having special educational needs. Free school meals are the largest indicator of economic disadvantage. The attainment gap between children starts during the early educational years and is already apparent when children reach age 5.

Utilising interventions such as scaffolding to narrow the attainment gap
Utilising interventions such as scaffolding to narrow the attainment gap

What contributes to the attainment gap between students?

Persistent poverty is a significant aspect contributing to the educational attainment gap between students. Children belonging to low-income households are more likely to have adverse educational outcomes.

Also, empirical evidence highlights increasing educational inequality amongst ethnic groups as a significant barrier to learning outcomes. This article won't be focused on this area but if you want to look at the data sets that the UK government hold on this area you might want to explore this article. The data measures compare the outcomes of black students, white students and Asian students at GCSE level.

Geographical location has a role to play. The geographical location of schools may cause some issues in educational outcomes including; an increase in the dropout rate, low achievement, poor attendance, and several other social problems.

Standardized testing may lead to an increasing attainment gap between pupils. Negative consequences of standardised assessment may include the loss of learning opportunities due to testing preparation, limited curriculum to concentrate on tested standards, and the stigmatization of schools and students as failing or in need of intervention on basis of inaccurate interpretations of what assessment scores indicate.

Limiting beliefs about pupils' competency may lead to an attainment gap between children. Teacher expectations have a huge impact on student attainment. Teacher expectations are frequently a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is critical for struggling students. According to Jon Saphier (2016) “Students are greatly affected by the messages they receive about their abilities, from the important people in their lives. Teachers' opinions about learners’ ability may be unconsciously conveyed through teachers' tone of voice, body language, behaviour and choice of words.

There must be more focus on decreasing the educational inequality and the total number of young people and children being excluded and closing the education attainment gap for SEND (special educational needs or disability) pupils, who can be too often forgotten and marginalised group. There is an increasing fear of the impact of Covid-19 on disadvantaged children, as they are more likely to switch to homeschooling during lockdowns.

Metacognitive practice such as the thinking framework
Metacognitive practice such as the thinking framework

What can I do to help close the attainment gap in my school?

There is no shortcut to decrease the educational attainment gap and due to Covid-19, schools are experiencing even more challenges. Below are some attainment measures schools can take to help underperforming students succeed.

  1. By acknowledging the attainment gap as a complex problem: According to an educational expert, Daniel Sobel, for decreasing the educational attainment gap there is a need for quality-first and outstanding teaching on basis of vulnerable children's individual needs and personalising strategies.
  2. By identifying the reasons: There is a need for professional development of staff to identify the root cause of the pupil attainment gap. Teachers must design interventions on basis of conversations with individual students. Schools can gather and use their data to identify trends in disadvantaged pupils' performance and use this information to create strategies. Research shows that a calm and learning environment at home are the factors that enable children of both low-income households and higher-income households to attain above-average outcomes despite their circumstances.
  3. By recognizing the barriers to learning: During school closures due to Covid-19, it has been a key barrier for the students with economic disadvantages to having consistent access to devices and reliable internet connections. One more barrier to educational attainment is attendance. Schools need to closely assess the factors affecting learning outcomes for poorer children such as vulnerable children's attendance and handle them, whether it involves enhancing access to health care, creating uniform closets, offering extra tutoring and mentoring, launching walking school buses or providing after school or morning care for the disadvantaged pupils.
  4. By using funding effectively: It is crucial to effectively use the Pupil Premium grant for vulnerable children. In an era of Covid-19, it has become essential to focus on cultivating resilience, childhood health, mental health and wellbeing.
  5. By focusing on learning support and teaching: Effectiveness of learning support and quality of teaching are significant factors that influence the education young people and children receive. For disadvantaged children, having support staff and teaching assistants to fulfil their social, emotional development and academic needs, is crucially important. Schools at any key stage level can better support educators and specialists by providing ongoing professional development and executing tiered systems of support to create and apply evidence-based interventions. Incentives must be offered to hire and then retain highly motivated secondary and primary school teachers in schools situated in more deprived neighbourhoods.
  6. By keeping high expectations from the students: In 'High Expectations Teaching,' Jon Saphier states that students at any key stage are greatly influenced by the messages they receive from the most important persons in their lives about their competency. Hence, both secondary and primary school teachers must demonstrate continual self-reflection and self-observance to ensure that they are consistently expressing huge expectations for all students.

Graphic organisers for promoting classroom thinking
Graphic organisers for promoting classroom thinking

Final thoughts on the attainment gap

Despite the challenges and complexities of decreasing or closing attainment gaps in a primary or secondary school, educators have been making significant improvements in the last few decades. Finally, positive things are happening in reality for a large proportion of pupils with racially different and disadvantaged backgrounds and other disadvantaged pupils and the emphasis has been on the core ingredients of quality schooling:

  • Students who are engaged, challenged, and culturally responsive;
  • Teachers who are passionate, skilled, and culturally self-aware;
  • Leaders who are visionary, collaborative and courageous.

No teacher and no leader can close the learning gap alone, the education sector must take a wide range of initiatives to mobilize expertise and resources across each level of the organization—school, district, student and classroom — it is possible to create opportunities for excellence for each learner.