Schoolzone blog: How to close the gap

How to close the gap


24 Nov 2015

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Do you ever find yourself saying (or thinking) "we have a lot of disadvantaged pupils, so obviously our school doesn't do as well by them as less disadvantaged schools"? If so, do you need to think again?

Here's what a recent (Nov 2015) NfER report has to say about that: "Schools with a higher proportion of disadvantaged pupils were associated with higher performance among disadvantaged pupils".

In other words, the more disadvantaged students a school has, the better the disadvantaged students perform. Is that counter-intuitive, or is it because all schools are at different points on their journeys? Cause and correlation are often confused and you need to be careful reading statements such as the quote above: note the author's use of "associated with". Schools with a high proportion of these students may well have put into place strategies many years ago, probably before PP funding was introduced, so they have more embedded strategies, greater experience and more developed expertise than other schools.

The study asked schools to say what they were doing to raise achievement of disadvantaged pupils and found this: "less successful primary schools were more likely to be using strategies to improve attendance, behaviour or pupil engagement in the curriculum". But that doesn't mean it's wrong to do these things. It probably means that the more successful schools had already done things and no longer considered them to be strategies for this purpose, when asked.

So these studies (see also EEF toolkit) need to be read in the context of your own school and where it is on the journey to success. And, importantly that none of these strategies and initiatives will have been implemented in isolation. A telling sentence in this report is "the survey found that schools had used a large number of strategies (18 per school, on average) in order to raise the attainment of disadvantaged pupils since 2011".

Given that leaders of successful schools also say (in the report) that these strategies take four to five years to bear fruit, that's an incredible amount of effort being put in by schools.

"In order to make further progress, the research indicates that [schools] need to:

  • support pupils’ social and emotional needs
  • address individual pupils’ learning needs
  • help all staff to use data effectively and
  • improve engagement with families.

Once these strategies are in place, the next steps on the improvement journey include:

  • focusing on early intervention
  • introducing metacognitive and peer learning strategies [secondary schools] and
  • improving their effectiveness in response to data on individual pupils’ progress."

Obviously, there are constraints on how well schools will do, based on factors outside their control - the report covers a lot of these: mostly fairly obvious (eg converter academies and teaching schools perform well - sic cause and effect), but TSA partners are doing well (though not TSA members, whatever the significance is) and free schools doing very badly indeed. The biggest factor, by quite a long way, though, is prior attainment - see chart on p36. If this were a gravitational effect it would be like that of Jupiter compared to the inner planets.

So, is there any point to this report, since it's saying (no surprises) that most of the negative impacts on the attainment of disadvantaged pupils are caused by:

  • higher levels of pupil absence
  • lower prior attainment
  • larger year groups
  • higher proportions of pupils with special educational needs
  • higher proportion of pupils from white British ethnic backgrounds
  • being located in certain areas (especially the SE,SW, E and NW)

Well, it's a thorough report (great, nerdy appendices, too!), with data appropriately analysed and it does suggest that schools "have meaningful scope to make a difference", with the overall messages being:

  • put the basics in place
  • there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution to closing the attainment gap.

But with £2.5 billion of pupil premium funding being targeted at improving the performance of disadvantaged it would be good if we could, between us all, come up with something better.

Footnote: Parliament itself introduced PP funding as being "to provide a real incentive for good schools to take pupils from poorer backgrounds" in which case perhaps all we should do is take the money and run.



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