Closing the Attainment Gap: Why, How and When?

At IG Schools we recognise the importance of tackling the widening attainment gap, now more than ever before, given the negative impact of school closures on the teaching and learning of children and young people.

Here we take a look at the latest research on the need for such efforts, and consider next steps for the education sector to carry on exploring key strategies for closing the attainment gap.

In a recent report published by the Sutton Trust, while over half of teachers are now using online live lessons, this rises to 86% in independent schools compared to an average of only 50% in state schools – a disparity which has increased since the first lockdown in March 2020. Over half of teachers in the least affluent state schools are reporting a lower than normal level of work returned by pupils, and across the board 84% of teachers see the COVID-19 lockdown and associated disruption as a likely cause of an increased attainment gap. Numbers of those who think this increase will be substantial has also risen in recent months.

While lunchtime lessons, parent-teacher meetings, and intermittent testing are among some suggestions for how to work on closing the attainment gap, some have also suggested that due to the sheer scale of negative impact a  decline in academic progress has on pupils that this should in fact be incorporated into safeguarding and wellbeing efforts instead. There is a link here with efforts to protect and nurture pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds in particular, and of course it has been well documented that these young people often lack the digital resources required to engage in the same level of learning as their peers.

The government’s £1 billion catch-up fund announced in June 2020 intends to help tackle this digital divide, the importance of which has been highlighted by the Education Policy Institute, and help mitigate the effects of lost learning time. But among policy recommendations offered by the Sutton Trust following their research is a £750 million ‘boost’ for disadvantaged pupils via the Pupil Premium, as part of a new catch-up fund, suggesting what has been offered thus far doesn't go far enough. The inability to meet basic requirements such as laptop provision for a significant proportion of pupils are still contributing to this growing gap, and as a matter of urgency must be addressed quickly via government efforts – especially if the trend of increased online learning is going to continue even after lockdown.

So severe is the negative impact of school closures on disadvantaged children in particular, that it has been described as “almost like systematic neglect” – despite hubs remaining open for those who are most vulnerable. With reports of mental health worsening among many children and young people, there are concerns among practitioners and leaders about the impact this factor has on pupils’ ability to focus on teaching and learning – and the long-term effects this could pose to progress even when schools fully re-open. In fact, educationalists and health officials alike have joined forces to urge the government to conduct a wide-scale inquiry examining the impact of disruptions in the past year on this generation of young people.

With almost three quarters of both teachers and parents recently surveyed highlighting a need for mental health concerns to be at the forefront of catch-up efforts, what’s clear is that approaches must be tailored and considerate of a wide range of pupils’ needs. School staff looking for proven ways to tackle the attainment gap may look to guidance from the EEF, which includes tutoring, teacher professional development on specific issues relating to the increasing gap, and targeted small-scale programmes perhaps delivered by teaching assistants. Targeted efforts must be made across the board, from Early Years through to KS5.

Decisions made on the 2021 assessment and exam structure will be central to navigating progress and attainment approaches across the education system in coming months, and for pupils at the end of KS4 and KS5 in particular, this could have a life-long impact on their lives and the opportunities available to them. Parliamentary findings have shown that the current situation “has the potential to affect a quarter of the entire workforce” for the next 50 years, and those most “at risk of falling into poverty” are, of course, disadvantaged pupils. Further policy recommendations from the Sutton Trust report include the need for 2021 qualifications to be “robust, respected and equitable as possible…with a focus on facilitating progression.”


This article was written by Lauren Powell, Head of Portfolio, IG Schools

If you'd like to hear more on strategies for closing the attainment gap and learn from key experts including the DfE, Sir Kevan Collins, the Education Endowment Foundation and the Rt. Hon David Laws then please join us at the National Pupil Premium Conference. To find out more about the conference please click on the logo below:


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