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Closing the Attainment Gap: 8 Insights to Help You Improve Your Strategy

Daniel Sobel (CEO, Inclusion Expert) shares some key insights from his book Narrowing the Attainment Gap: A handbook for schools on how school leaders can best understand and tackle this problem. His research is based on work in over 800 schools across the education system, working to support disadvantaged children from a wide range of backgrounds, in both primary and secondary schools.

1. In my experience the schools that succeed in narrowing and closing the attainment gap are those that recognise the deeply compound nature of the issue. Having this more nuanced outlook allows leaders to see below the surface and respond intelligently to the unique challenges of both their school and individual students.

In essence, it’s the difference between automatically shunting a student who’s behind in English along to extra lunchtime classes, and recognising that, in fact, he’s behind because English is his second language, or because English is a late morning lesson and he doesn’t get breakfast at home, or because his parents struggled with English when they were at school and have told him the subject is a waste of time.

2.  The solution to the gap has to involve outstanding, quality-first teaching based on understanding students’ needs and personalising approaches. The starting point here then is an investment in teachers as much as in the students. As a school leader, you cannot ignore this and you cannot impose strictness on teachers who have a tough time of it. You either support them really well or their students will have no chance of achieving.

It is nearly always the case that in the schools my team and I visit we find a correlation between impoverishment and poor teaching. It becomes a vicious cycle: poor teaching leads to worse behaviour, which then leads to less motivated teachers, and so on.

3. Staff must be trained to identify the reasons behind problems, not just the problems themselves. We must develop a policy of deriving interventions based on communication with the individual students. For example,a solution that worked well for a particular set of year 9 boys who were struggling with achievement was the employment of a gold-toothed, heavily tattooed, ‘hard- man’ boxing coach.

The school had realised that none of the boys in question had a father and this man provided a male role model. Sanctions he introduced, such as refusing them entry to the gym if they got a detention, improved their effort during the school day. These boys all started out with low aspirations, which could, in part, be traced back to the lack of encouragement or expectation to achieve at home; however, the boxing coach told them that they could be great and, moreover, he expected it of them. He emphasised to them that school was their ticket to a better life and, as such, their level of achievement in school rose significantly.

4. Different settings emphasise certain aspects of educational leadership. There are no catch-all solutions; only ones that work in certain types of schools because of their specific capacity to manage and closely develop a particular type of intervention. For example, some schools line manage TAs once a week and some spend that time preparing more materials, both of which approaches are valid according to the context.

5. The educational divide between rich and poor is only a small part of a wider gulf in health outcomes, labour market success, marriage and divorce rates, welfare dependency – basically, in all domains of human success. I do not believe that the ultimate goal of education is test scores or even the success of our economy, but to produce people who can competently and confidently find their place in the world: people who have aspirations, whatever those are, and have the tools to achieve them.

6. The data that you collate in your school will be the bedrock of your work on closing the attainment gap. All of your spending strategies and many of your approaches regarding individual students will be based on it. It will tell you about trends in disadvantaged student performance and provide the benchmarks against which changes can be measured.

In England and Wales, and in various other jurisdictions, there is also a requirement to publish data on your school’s website and share it with inspectors in order to meet accountability criteria.

7. Work on the basis of a marathon rather than a sprint with your interventions. Aim to create systems that have a long-term effect, improving things within three to five years. Inspectors want to see that you are aware of the issues faced by your disadvantaged students, have thought about and analysed them carefully, and are putting concrete strategies in place.

8. The biggest of all [the things that you can do] lies in the attitude shifts, in seeing young people as people rather than student data on a page, in reinventing your own aspirations for these students and believing in them – because there is no way they can do it without you. This is less about doing and more about understanding. […]I believe the attainment gap is not a mystery or too complicated and is not as stubborn as everyone makes out. It is largely a matter of seeing it differently.