Strategies to bridge the attainment gap

Written by: Daniel Sobel | Published:
Image: iStock

Is it possible to halve the attainment gap in just six months? Drawing upon his work with one school, inclusion expert Daniel Sobel offers five lessons for effective whole-school Pupil Premium strategies

The number of schools that have not been able to make even a dent in their attainment gap since the inception of the Pupil Premium is quite staggering.

However, I have seen successes in a myriad of forms. In this article, I aim to capture what I believe to be a winning formula for narrowing the gap in a school that could be applied in most settings.

I have chosen one particular case study of a primary school where we followed that formula to the letter and within six months we had halved the attainment gap. We then went on to apply these approaches in a number of schools in the local area with significant success. Here is that story.

Pupil Premium – a case study

Sarah Conant, executive headteacher of the Diocese of Ely Multi-Academy Trust, stepped in to temporarily take over a primary school for one year which had been left with a serious attainment gap. Sarah is an inspirational headteacher willing to take on challenging schools.

She explained: “We had received a letter from the Department for Education highlighting the key issues. They wanted us to act quickly: financial spending was not specified well enough, monitoring of Pupil Premium spending was ad hoc, interventions were not assessed for impact, governors didn’t understand the importance of the Pupil Premium and the targeted funding required.

“No-one had looked at the Pupil Premium cohorts to look at their real needs. In addition, the school was faced with a brand new senior leadership, issues with teaching, and data that was very much in the red.”

Lesson 1: The gap can be narrowed even from a difficult starting point

Sarah commissioned a Pupil Premium review which concurred with her concerns. Sarah wanted the review to identify barriers to progress and articulate the steps needed to close the gap. Although the review was carried out in one day, half of it was spent co-authoring a very detailed and robust implementation plan which mapped out:

  • Areas for development.
  • What success will look like.
  • Specific action points matched against each success criterion.
  • An identification of who would implement them and by when.
  • Next steps.

The implementation plan stretched to 30-plus points and covered everything from how the school liaises with parents to governance, assessment and interventions, hard and soft data capture, and even liaison with other schools and outside agencies.

The gap doesn’t exist in just one area of a school’s work, it is a broad socio-economic phenomenon and schools need to sharpen every faculty across a broad range of understanding and skills. But – it can be done from even the toughest of starting points.

Lesson 2: A Pupil Premium review and action plan is only as successful as it is specific, relevant and authored by the school

A common assumption that schools make is “let’s bring in an external consultant who does Pupil Premium reviews regularly and let them fix the issue for us”.

However, the situation isn’t as simple as bringing in a plumber to mend a pipe: narrowing the gap is a whole-school issue and must be owned by the school. The best ideas will be generated from within, and what works in one school in one region won’t necessarily help in another.

The reasons why Pupil Premium reviews fail are a lack of breadth, a lack of depth, and an insufficient understanding of the specific local setting. Of course, expertise is needed – but it must facilitate the involvement of staff and the incorporation of their own expertise.

In the case of the work in Ely, key challenges included gaining a greater understanding of issues and building relationships. Urgent concerns for the school included:

  • The need for nuanced identification of student needs including soft data factors such as preparedness for learning, engagement and confidence.
  • The need to reach out to families and ensure staff know the families, inspire community aspiration and manage expectations.
  • The need to tackle a significant mobility issue with a high percentage mid-phase entry.
  • Lack of teacher training in personalised learning and differentiation.
  • The need for a SEND review and focus.

The identified barriers to progress were both typical of many schools and at the same time very specific to this particular setting in their subtlety.

Lesson 3: An environment that fosters parental engagement and promotes aspiration

After the review, when the issues had been explored, Sarah reflected: “I think it’s about trying to understand where the parents are coming from both literally and in their thought processes. You need to target them as much as their children.”

Getting to know the families of students can make a significant difference in narrowing the gap. Not only can a school in this way gain a closer understanding of the major social and economic factors at work in the community, but by bringing parents “on side”, you will have a greater impact than hiring a few more teaching assistants ever could. The school took swift action across a range of areas. Key among these was the importance of a nuanced identification of student needs, including soft data factors. To achieve this, the school’s strategy included a free breakfast club, which doubled as a help and support club, including homework and reading, with teachers present.

Also, they developed a whole-school focus on oracy to boost student confidence, including poetry-reading, and an emphasis on performance and performing all kinds of reading. As explained above, reaching out and ensuring the staff knew the families, inspired community aspiration and managed expectations was vital. Some of the actions included:

  • Significantly increasing knowledge of families.
  • Building community aspiration and offering opportunities for informality, openness, expressing you are welcome, you belong etc.
  • Emphasising cross-curricular support of students through music and other activities – don’t just focus on spelling, punctuation and grammar and numeracy.
  • Inspiring parents through publicised good news stories, such as stories in the local press noting achievements in art and sport.
  • Putting up an “Aspirations Board” in the foyer.
  • Inviting parents for coffee and cake at numeracy and literacy participation events – parents aren’t invited to a “talk”, but to a combination of activity, food and socialising.
  • Making family engagement the focal point of key school events, such as the picnic at sports day.
  • Increasing formal forums for parental voice.

After a few weeks of concerted efforts, particularly aimed at hard-to-reach parents, the parents started engaging in a different way towards the school; parents could choose their own pace of increased engagement and how they wanted to get involved. This eventually grew into a fresh interest in their child’s education and other opportunities the school could offer.

Incidentally, Nathan Atkinson, headteacher of Richmond Hill Primary School in Leeds, has developed these ideas further than any other school I have seen by truly putting parents and the community at the heart of school life. Richmond Hill, among many activities, opened up a donations-only food store and café for parents and emphasised parental learning and support.

Lesson 4: Successful implementation of a Pupil Premium plan goes hand-in-hand with management of staff

You cannot separate out the Pupil Premium from staff management. Implementation of a new plan will involve a process of evolution for staff, not just at the beginning stages but throughout the whole journey.

All heads have to find their particular balance between playing the encourager and yielding a stick with their staff. Certainly in Sarah’s school she found that the staff responded well to understanding clearly what the real issues were and what the plan entailed.

A fleeting meeting with a short summary of the plan in a few points would have been inadequate – instead there was a strong emphasis on clear communication, high expectations set for all staff, and clear consequences for not getting on board.

Sarah recalled: “Initially, there was simply a lack of clarity on what Pupil Premium meant from the majority of staff. Staff came to realise that it is a constant evaluation and revaluation of what their students need. Emphasising soft data gave them a much better insight into these children’s lives.

“For example, focusing on getting students in early rather than on absence has improved their interaction with school. Additional training for staff reinforced the need to be specific about support and impact, and provided the skills to meet the needs in the classroom.”

The lack of teacher training in personalised learning and differentiation as well teaching assistant training was a key barrier to narrowing the gap. Wendy Knott, an expert in differentiation training, worked with staff in Ely in small groups of four, over four one-day sessions. The end result was a shift in thinking and action of the staff.

Assume that your teachers and teaching assistants are nowhere near where they could be in their ability to personalise learning and adapt the curriculum to really drive student engagement. Also assume that student engagement in the curriculum is the responsibility of the classroom teacher once you have provided sufficient training for them.

Lesson 5: Know your students

It is an obvious statement to make, but the obvious is the thing which schools often miss. It is a brave school that invests the time to dig deep into the real issues. Both Sarah Conant and Nathan Atkinson agree that headteachers need to feel that they have permission to address the real issues that get in the way of student engagement and preparedness for learning.

It can be counter-intuitive to think you can improve outcomes in ways that seemingly have nothing to do with the curriculum. However, I have seen in multiple schools that creative answers to challenges in academic performance are often more powerful than traditional interventions such as extra tuition.

Your staff may not have the full picture of a student’s needs – does a particular student require additional maths or language acquisition support, or just a stronger relationship with their maths teacher?

Staff need to have the means to capture what is really going on with their pupils. This process then must lead to a discussion about how to best meet those needs.

Sarah also commissioned an in-depth SEND review, which provided a similar level of breadth and depth to the Pupil Premium review. The overlaps between these two cohorts are clear nationally, and very often – but not always – in individual schools. The provisions for SEND students required careful unpicking to ensure maximum impact from minimum input.

  • Daniel Sobel is founder of Inclusion Expert which provides SEND and Pupil Premium reviews, training and support with all forms of inclusion. Sarah Conant and Nathan Atkinson now join Daniel in lecturing on how they narrowed the attainment gap.


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