Attainment gap: Five-point plan includes overhaul of curriculum, admissions and testing

A five-point plan to overhaul England’s education system and boost our work to close the attainment gap between rich and poor has been put forward by school leaders.

The Association of School and College Leaders has published its Blueprint for a Fairer Education System, which targets fundamental reforms to things like admissions, SATs, GCSEs, and the national curriculum (ASCL, 2021).

In 2019, researchers famously predicted that, based on current progress, it will take more than 500 years to close the attainment gap (Hutchinson et al, 2019) – a situation which has been exacerbated by Covid-19.

ASCL sets out reforms across five core “building blocks” that it says will help boost the closing of the attainment gap.

1, Curriculum

The blueprint states: “A core national curriculum, mandatory for all state schools until the age of 16, focused on what we collectively agree are the most important things children and young people should know and do. This is relatively stable, with regular but infrequent opportunities for review. Young people can branch off into different pathways as they get older. These pathways are all of a high quality and can be combined and moved between.”

ASCL proposes a review of the national curriculum to ensure it focuses on “fewer things in greater depth and leaves enough space in the school day for schools to develop their own complementary local curriculum”.

It wants this new core curriculum mandatory for all state schools, including academies, and seeks a long-term approach to further curriculum review, based on a 10-year cycle.

2, Teachers and leaders

The blueprint states: “Leaders, teachers and support staff in every school and college who have the expertise and capacity to develop and expand the core national curriculum into a high-quality local curriculum, and to provide the broader support children and young people need. This expertise is developed through strong initial teacher education, on-going and effective professional development, and the sharing of knowledge and effective practice.”

Core to this goal is an increased commitment to providing access to and time for high-quality CPD for teachers and school leaders, with at least one staff member in every school having taken the new NPQ in leading teacher development. More flexible working practices and “clearer pathways” for career development are also vital, ASCL says.

3, Assessments and qualifications

The blueprint states: “National assessments and qualifications which link seamlessly to the core curriculum and post-16 pathways. These are constructed in a way which enables all children and young people to demonstrate their knowledge and skills, and to be recognised for this. Students’ results in national assessments play a proportionate role in how schools and colleges are held to account.”

Among its proposals, ASCL wants just two key assessment points during primary school – a phonics check in year 1 and an end-of-primary assessment in year 6.

It seeks to replace key stage 2 SATs at the end of primary school with “adaptive assessments which make greater use of technology to ensure assessments are more intelligent and personalised”.

At secondary level, it calls for reform to GCSEs to “reduce the massive number of terminal exams taken by pupils during their final summer at secondary school”.

It wants to see the reintroduction of some “on-going assessment over the course of a qualification and making greater use of technology in assessment”.

It also calls for a review of the current comparable outcomes-based approach to grading GCSEs, AS and A levels.

4, Resources

The blueprint states: “Sufficient resources for all schools and colleges to deliver the education to which we have agreed all children and young people are entitled.”

Among a number of proposals for funding reform, the blueprint calls for the Pupil Premium to be extended to include 16 to 19-year-olds and reformed funding for pupils with SEND. It states: “The high needs formula should be sufficient to enable all schools and colleges to plan for and deliver outstanding education and support for children and young people with SEND, with no requirement for schools and colleges to meet some of these additional costs out of their core budget before additional funding
is provided.”

5, Structures and systems

The blueprint states: “Structures and systems which support and reward schools and colleges for providing all children and young people with a high-quality, broad and challenging education. These structures and systems encourage and enable everyone working in schools and colleges to act for the good of all children and young people, not just those in their own institutions.”

At the core of the blueprint is a review of school admissions to consider requiring schools to prioritise Pupil Premium children or those in persistent poverty in their oversubscription criteria places. There is already a similar requirement for children in care.

This is aimed at tackling the fact that schools with high Ofsted ratings are often oversubscribed and located in middle-class areas, meaning they are hard to access for pupils from disadvantaged areas.

ASCL general secretary Geoff Barton said: “There are, of course, many excellent schools in disadvantaged areas too, but the economics of property ownership mean that disadvantaged families don’t have the same access as middle-class parents to certain schools. This is an entrenched injustice which reinforces an unhealthy division between affluent and disadvantaged areas and children.”

Elsewhere, the blueprint sets out an overhaul school performance tables so that they become more akin to “balanced scorecards”, offering parents with a broad range of measures beyond exam and assessment results, including things like exclusion rates, curriculum breadth, and staff development.

It also wants to see a “window of time” between when a leader takes on a new school and when that school is inspected.


The blueprint’s proposals are “deliberately designed to be eminently do-able” according to Mr Barton. He continued: “They build on what is largely a good education system with targeted proposals which we believe would make the system work better for all children and young people.

“There’s nothing new about the attainment gap between rich and poor. We’ve been talking about it for years. But we’re still not making anything like the progress that is needed in closing that gap and we can’t expect to keep doing the same thing and expect different results. It is time for change.”