Attainment Gap: What Does it Mean and How Can You Close it?

Time to read: 6min 14 Oct 2022

What is the attainment gap and why is it important for schools?

In the UK, only 31.7% of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds achieve a grade 5 or higher, compared to the national average of 59%.

This ‘gap’ in academic achievement for children of low socio-economic status (SES) backgrounds is what many describe as the ‘attainment gap’, and it hasn’t shown signs of closing for 20 years.

Measured by tracking pupils’ grades and progression throughout the school system, it’s calculated by comparing a mean rank for all disadvantaged pupils against a mean rank for all non-disadvantaged pupils. For young children, results and grades are taken from assessments against the Early Years Foundation Stage Profile and other reading, writing, and mathematics benchmarks. For older children, key stage assessments and GCSE (or equivalent) exam results are used.

But what causes the attainment gap? And what would closing the gap mean for schools?

The attainment gap stems from access to education and education inequality, and there are many ways this can manifest. Low SES families, for example, may struggle to afford things like learning materials, uniforms, school trips, and school meals. And schools from more deprived areas may also suffer from receiving less funding, resulting in that school not being as well-resourced and with less experienced teachers.

But access to education isn’t just an economical issue. Education inequality is also increased by less prevalent and quantifiable factors; whether a pupil is SEND (Special Educational Needs and/or Disabilities), lives with neurodiversity, or cares for a parent with debilitating physical or mental health issues.

While this is an issue that is seen in schools, affecting the academic performance of pupils and the school as a whole, the attainment gap represents a much wider issue with a far more deep-rooted impact throughout society.

It’s therefore crucial for schools to play a key part in giving help to disadvantaged pupils to tackle these social inequalities throughout society. Being able to provide support at a young age will reap massive improvements for their future.

But with this being such a wide and multi-faceted social issue, what can schools do to improve education inequality and bridge the attainment gap?

Being able to provide support at a young age

What can your school do to help close the attainment gap?

Understand the complexity and deep-routed nature of the issue

A key step in being able to support disadvantaged pupils and begin to shrink the attainment gap at your school is to first understand why children are performing at different levels in their subjects.

When your school notices a child falling behind in their academic performance, take a moment to ask why this might be.

Could they be falling back in English class because English is a second language in their household? Or is English class held in the morning and they aren’t able to get breakfast at home?

Whatever the reason, it will likely be different for each child, and will require a different approach to be able to truly support children in their development.

Invest in parental involvement strategies

For children, having their learning in school supported at home will do wonders for their academic achievement and enthusiasm for learning.

And providing support is a two-way street. Consider conducting a quick parental questionnaire so that you can learn about each family’s unique situation and how best you can help provide support.

Work with families and communities to offer parenting workshops, encouraging positive behaviours such as reading with children at home, and pointing parents in the right direction for any support they might need…

Pointing parents towards any external help they could benefit from

Be aware of what external help is available and communicate these opportunities with families who may need it.

This could be governmental schemes, specialised charities, or other support offered by businesses. For example:

Ask why a child is falling behind

Organise academically focussed after school activities

Your school may already run a comprehensive line-up for extra curricular activities and clubs, but these may be centred around hobbies and sport. Consider introducing (or investing in) some academically focussed activities, which have been proven to have a significant impact on attainment.

Being able to provide free extra curricular activities which focus on improving academic performance supports struggling families and the academic performance of children at your school. This could be anything from study support and film club to reading club and politics and economics club.

Giving children somewhere to be outside of the home gives struggling parents a little extra flexibility to manage their lives whilst their children are receiving beneficial academic support.

But don’t be overwhelmed at the prospect of conjuring up additional extra curricular activities, managing clubs doesn’t have to be an added chore. With specialist software like Schoolcomms Club Management, the admin burdens of organising school clubs and wraparound care are lifted, freeing up valuable staff time.

Peer tutoring and meta-cognitive tutoring

Who better to support the learning and development of disadvantaged pupils than other pupils? And if staffing and resource is a barrier for your school, investing in a peer tutoring or meta-cognitive tutoring could be the solution.

Setting up volunteer-based peer tutoring workshops to teach older children how to be an effective tutor not only helps out the children they are tutoring, but also teaches the volunteers valuable life skills.

Teaching disadvantaged pupils meta-cognitive tutoring skills is another great way to teach valuable life skills at the same time as providing academic attainment support.

Meta-cognitive tutoring means helping children understand and improve their own learning. Rather than providing surface-level support to help disadvantaged pupils to pass their upcoming assessments or exams, these techniques will enable them to effectively learn and grow in all aspects of their lives.

There’s even government help for schools looking to expand or develop their tutoring offers. The National Tutoring Programme (NTP) supports school leaders in their efforts to provide support for disadvantaged and vulnerable pupils from year 1 to 11, with the specific aim to help them catch up on missed learning due to covid-19.

Work to overcome key barriers to promote truly inclusive education opportunities

Being able to provide truly inclusive education for all of your pupils will help to provide support for disadvantaged families and close the attainment gap. These opportunities don’t come without their own unique barriers, but there are a few things that you can do try and overcome them to provide an inclusive school experience.

Promote the opportunity for free school meals (FSM). With 14% of all school children entitled to FSMs not claiming them, it’s important for schools to encourage take up and communicate the benefits for families who need it. Be sure to emphasise the time and cost saving for families who struggle to provide lunch for children each day. You can even invest in software that anonymises FSM pupils to reduce stigma against eligible children.

Similarly, not all parents are aware of the help that pupil premium can provide for them and their school. Educate and encourage parents to register as eligible for pupil premium so that your school can apply for additional funding to help support disadvantaged pupils. This process is made easier than ever with software that can check and track eligibility.

Make sure you can provide the opportunity for families to pay for school items and activities in instalments. Spreading put costs will make activities far more accessible for families with less disposable incomes. ParentPay, for example, allows flexible payment options, including the option for paying in instalments.

Pupils supporting learning

Supporting you to close the gap

As such a complex and deep-rooted societal issue, your school won’t be able to close the attainment gap in its own. But you can provide some support to the pupils and families at your school who need it.

Being able to point parents in the right direction for any help that they are eligible to receive is a great start. It can be a daunting and convoluted process for families to check and register for pupil premium eligibility, but tools like Schoolcomms’ pupil premium checker makes it clear and simple. You’ll be able to easily ensure every eligible family is included in the scheme and raise thousands of pounds in extra support.

Another way to implement effective and bespoke support to begin to close the attainment gap is to begin effectively communicating with and engaging your parents to fully understand their backgrounds and day-to-day struggles.

To build the foundations for this sort of collaborative relationship, start by listening to the needs of your parents and carers by conducting a questionnaire to discover the best ways you can support them and their children.

This form of parental engagement will be key for enacting positive change. To help guide you through improving your parental engagement in order to benefit school, pupils, and parents, we’ve put together our Ultimate Guide for Parental Engagement.

Download the Ultimate Guide to Parental Engagement

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