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The Attainment Gap: What It Is and 7 Strategies That Work In Most Schools

The attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers is more apparent than ever. It influences pupils’ educational outcomes and lifelong prospects. 

In this article, we look in depth at what the attainment gap is, the causes and the effects. Plus 7 strategies to try in your school today to help close the attainment gap.

What is the attainment gap?

Young people receiving free school meals and pupil premium funding face educational inequalities. 

The attainment gap measures the educational outcomes of those eligible for free school meals and compares them with the proportion of pupils who have never received free school meals. 

This gap develops in the early years and is already measurable by age 5, increasing throughout a pupil’s school years. Ultimately, the attainment gap results in many 19-year-olds underperforming and leaving education without qualifications in English and maths. This greatly limits their options for future work. 

In April 2011, the Department for Education introduced pupil premium to state schools in England to address the attainment gap. 

But what can pupil premium be spent on?

The pupil premium grant aims to assist education providers in implementing initiatives to help pupils reach the expected level by the end of their education. It can be used on a wealth of evidence-based interventions to improve the attainment gap for vulnerable students.

During inspections, Ofsted assesses pupil premium spending to ensure it is spent correctly and effectively. 

Post-pandemic, the educational outcomes of disadvantaged pupils deteriorated increasing the attainment gap. A recovery premium grant was introduced in addition to pupil premium funding to address the growing attainment gap. 

The Senior Leader’s Guide to Pupil Premium [Updated for 2023/24]

The Senior Leader’s Guide to Pupil Premium [Updated for 2023/24]

Everything you need to know about using pupil premium funding effectively to close the attainment gap.

How is the attainment gap measured?

Many systems are in place to measure the attainment gap in England between disadvantaged pupils and their peers who are not eligible for pupil premium funding.

By age 5, the attainment gap between pupil premium children and their peers is approximately 5 months. The Education Policy Institute found this gap increases to 19 months by Year 11. Further evidence suggests this has increased further since Covid-19. 

One key indicator the DfE use to measure the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers is statutory exams:

  • Key Stage 2 SATs
  • Key Stage 4 GCSEs

Additional measures of the attainment gap within the English education system include:

  • Reception baseline benchmarks using the Early Years Foundation Stage Profile
  • Phonics screenings in Year 1 
  • Year 2 SATs in reading, writing and mathematics 
  • Chronological reading age
  • Attendance

At the end of Key Stage 1 in 2023, the proportion of children eligible for the pupil premium grant was 23%. Of these students, 67% met the expected standard in the phonics screening test compared to 83% for their non-disadvantaged classmates. 

In 2023, 30% of pupils were considered disadvantaged by the end of Key Stage 2. 44% of disadvantaged pupils met the expected standard in reading, writing and maths combined compared to 66% of other pupils. A difference of 22 percentage points. 

Of those eligible for free school meals in 2023 only 28.4% achieved a grade 5 or above in English and maths compared to 55.4% of their peers. 

Since the pandemic, the attainment gap and the number of pupils eligible for pupil premium have increased. 

While the 2023 figures show a small improvement, the gap in outcomes is still significantly higher than in 2019.

What are the effects of the attainment gap?

According to the Nuffied Foundation, the attainment gap can have a lifelong negative impact. 

Disadvantaged pupils may have limited vocabulary and lack the necessary skills before they even start Reception. 

Throughout their school years, pupils from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are more likely to be persistently absent. In turn, they are less likely to be able to access the curriculum, resulting in gaps in knowledge.

By the end of Key Stage 2, disadvantaged pupils are on average 3 years behind their chronological reading age. This reduces their ability to access the secondary curriculum in the way their peers can when they transition to Key Stage 3. 

Those eligible for pupil premium are also less likely to go on to higher education or stay in university. 

What causes the attainment gap in education?

A multitude of factors contribute towards the attainment gap. Whilst many of these are outside the direct control of schools, it is important to understand their influence on educational outcomes. 

Many causes of inequalities can overlap for individuals. It is important to know the young people in your school and use structured conversations to understand their context. 

1. Socioeconomic status

Socioeconomic status is the primary predictor of educational outcomes. Poverty in deprived areas correlates with poorer health, mental health and nutrition which impacts the ability to pay attention to learning. 

Poorer households spend a great proportion of their income on housing costs, food and utility bills meaning that they aren’t able to meet the cost of:

  • School uniform
  • Travel to school
  • School trips
  • Educational resources 

Households lacking educational resources such as computers, printers or desks may impact a pupil’s ability to complete homework. 

2. Pupil with SEND (Special Educational Needs and/or Disabilities) 

Pupils with Special Educational Needs are more than twice as likely to be eligible for free school meals. The attainment gap is also twice as large as it is for disadvantaged pupils. 

Often, the resources and additional support required is costly and unaffordable for schools — even with pupil premium funding.

3. Digital gap

During the pandemic, the digital gap became more apparent. As learning moved online, disadvantaged pupils without access to the internet were missing virtual classes. 

Although the Department for Education’s laptop scheme provided over 1.6 million digital devices delivered to low-income pupils, the attainment gap remains. 

Approximately 560,000 pupils do not have access to the internet at all with a further 900,000 only having access through a mobile network. Many of these have to share access with other household members. 

This had clear implications for the way schools developed their homework policies and support work outside the classroom.

4. Parental involvement 

Children spend most of their time outside of school, meaning parents and carers have a significant impact on the success of their educational outcomes. 

Parental involvement ranges from reading to a child in their early years to being a role model in communicating with the school — particularly when negative behaviour demands that a school and home work closely together. 

While parental engagement is one of the less understood causes of educational disadvantage, it is significant. 

5. Ethnicity 

An additional factor to consider when looking at the attainment gap is ethnicity. 

Of eligible pupil premium children, the lowest performing ethnic group is usually white students. Often, Chinese students perform better than their classmates. 

Although there are no rigorous tests, reasons for this may include: 

  • Parental engagement of different ethnic groups 
  • Age of parents 
  • High aspirations of ethnic minority groups 
  • Long-term parental unemployment of White British pupils

6. Gender

An educational attainment gap between genders is evident in all stages of compulsory education in England. 

10% fewer boys achieve at least 5 good GCSE passes. Similarly to the pupil premium attainment gap, research shows that the gender attainment gap also accelerates in secondary school. 

Reasons for this are complex and not fully understood but they can be linked to education factors such as:

  • Examination systems
  • Teacher input 
  • School culture 

7. Geographical location

Increasing evidence suggests that if your school is in London, the attainment gap will be smaller than in a local authority in a different part of the country. 

Educational outcomes are likely to be better if your institution is in the south east of England when compared to the Midlands and North. 

The attainment gap graph below shows the regional differences in attainment at A Level, according data from the Lords library

GCSE results follow a similar pattern. 

8. Learning facilities 

Despite there being little evidence to suggest the state of school facilities in England improves pupil attainment, issues such as RAAC building materials and declining facilities have triggered successive governments to announce rebuilding programmes to help close the attainment gap. 

Existing studies are predominantly from the US where better school facilities are linked to greater teacher effort and better educational outcomes for pupils. 

9. English as an additional language

Many pupils attend school in England with little to no English. This greatly impacts knowledge and understanding of the curriculum. 

While the attainment gap between EAL students and their classmates is pronounced at primary school, it often declines by the end of secondary school. 

Typically, EAL learners with lower socioeconomic status leave school with lower and fewer qualifications than their peers.

10. Teacher’s role 

Evidence-based research shows that high quality teaching and class level interventions are effective in addressing the attainment gap

‘we could argue that expert teaching consistently enables rapid and robust pupil learning.’

Peps Mcrea

Naturally, this should be underpinned by continuing professional development and a culture that supports teachers to focus on strategies that make a difference. 

According to the Education Endowment Foundation Teaching and Learning Toolkit, interventions must be implemented by teachers to have a high impact. Higher education performance of pupils could be linked to: 

  • Teacher qualification level 
  • Pupil expectations 
  • Behaviour management
  • Instructional technique

High quality teaching and learning have a positive impact on closing the attainment gap

11. School culture

School leadership and culture are crucial in closing the attainment gap. 

Many of the interdependent variables previously mentioned can be linked to school culture. For example, valuing continued professional development sets high academic expectations for children from disadvantaged backgrounds to do well. 

Schools that perform less well are found to lack a sense of purpose and have low aspirations for those in their care. 

7 strategies to close the attainment gap

Understanding what impacts the disadvantage gap helps schools work on improving the educational outcomes for these pupils. Based on these factors, here are 7 strategies to help close the attainment gap. 

1. Understand the barriers to learning 

Children eligible for the pupil premium grant cannot be thought of as one singular group. Schools and academies must understand their contextual factors. 

Young people should be treated as individuals and schools should consider: 

  • Ethnicity
  • Socioeconomic background
  • Social mobility 
  • Moving schools more often 
  • SEND

Such data can be collated and recorded in your school’s information system and used to identify the correct interventions for individuals and measure the impact. 

2. Use pupil premium funding effectively 

It’s often tempting to use the pupil premium funding for school trips and rewards but it’s important to focus on successful pupil premium strategies that raise educational outcomes. 

Funding should be used for interventions linked to educational outcomes. Ultimately, young people need to leave your educational provision with the qualifications and qualities needed for the next stage in their lives. 

Similarly, any pupil premium strategy that looked promising but failed to deliver should be stopped.

3. Quality-first and outstanding teaching

Many impactful strategies in the EEF’s Teaching Toolkit relate to teaching strategies. They require careful implementation and continued professional learning as well as time for teachers to understand the needs of the individual students in their care. 

This can be particularly challenging in secondary settings, where each teacher is responsible for instructing a great number of individuals. 

Address individual needs and personalise teaching and learning strategies. Tempting as it may be to remove pupils from learning for extra support, there is a positive impact when they are taught by great teachers. 

Providing a simple one page profile for each pupil is an effective way of sharing simple strategies with teaching staff. 

Bespoke learning programmes focusing on each pupil’s needs and working one to one help ensure maximum success. Evidence suggests that one to one tuition and mentoring is one of the most effective ways to close the attainment gap. 

Schools can gather and use their data to identify trends in disadvantaged pupils’ performance and use this information to create strategies. 

Research shows that high quality teaching in partnership with a calm learning environment enable children from all socioeconomic backgrounds to attain the expected standard or higher. 

4. CPD for school staff 

Teachers are often overwhelmed by the amount of information they need to take in during insets and training days. These usually have little impact on classroom practice. 

Providing teachers with less information but more frequently can make a more positive impact. 

Give space for teachers to talk to teachers about teaching. For example, a 15 minute forum where teachers share methodologies and ideas can develop a culture of collegiate responsibility. 

CPD should be available for teachers to keep up to date with the latest quality-first teaching methodologies. There is a huge volume of research available, but this needs to be distilled before it is shared. 

Effective CPD is communicated through subject specialists, rather than generic approaches. Provide time for subject teams (whether at primary or secondary) to discuss the implementation of ideas. These discussions can also be structured to talk about the progress of individual children. 

Schools at any key stage can support educators and specialists by providing ongoing professional development and executing tiered systems of support to create and apply evidence-based interventions.

5. High expectations of students 

Both secondary and primary teachers need to ensure they are reflective and set high expectations for their pupils. In turn, they should do the same and hold themselves to high standards. 

Celebrate pupil achievements. This encourages pupils and those around them to continue working hard.

6. High-quality interventions 

Link teaching and learning interventions to classroom work, monitoring attainment and intervening quickly to address each student’s learning needs. Involving the pastoral and academic teams here is essential. 

The link between interventions and educational outcomes should be communicated. For example, if you have non-teaching Heads of Year in a secondary setting, ensure they understand the link between great attendance and better academic achievement.

Anyone running an intervention should have the necessary training and expertise to deliver interventions, provide feedback and monitor progress

At Third Space Learning, maths experts designed our one to one intervention programme with teachers and school leaders in mind to reduce the workload on teachers while maintaining high impact for pupils.

Up to 15 pupils receive simultaneous one to one tutoring from highly qualified maths specialist tutors. 

All tutors are highly trained by our academic team and receive ongoing CPD to stay up-to-date with the latest teaching pedagogies.

Read more: The Most Effective Intervention Strategies In Primary And Secondary Schools

 7. Improving attendance

Understand that attendance, behaviour and emotional support are necessary but not sufficient for academic success. 

They provide an effective foundation for learning, but expert teaching is the key to securing better education outcomes.

Schools need to assess the factors affecting learning outcomes for disadvantaged children such as vulnerable children’s attendance and find solutions. This may involve: 

  • Offering extra tutoring and mentoring
  • Providing after school or morning care

After school provisions can help bridge the attainment gap. Some pupils may not have the space or technology at home to complete homework. 

Spaces for students to access technology and help to complete homework can help raise attainment. Setting homework that can be accessed on a mobile device and doesn’t need printing or extra resources can have a positive impact.

Similarly, many students from disadvantaged backgrounds may not be ready to face the school day. Providing a morning boot camp that comprises physical activity, breakfast with staff and peers and some mentoring can encourage better attendance. 

How Third Space learning helps close the maths attainment gap 

One to one maths tutoring 

Third Space Learning was founded in 2013 and is committed to raising attainment in maths to help close the maths attainment gap for disadvantaged pupils. We make high-quality one-to-one maths tutoring available to pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. 

How does Third Space Learning’s one to one tutoring close the attainment gap? 

  1. We diagnose your pupils’ specific maths gaps.

    Every student sits an initial diagnostic assessment to identify the learning gaps maths specialist tutors should prioritise. 

    Lessons are followed by Post-Session Questions, assessing knowledge pupils have retained and the learning that needs more time.

  2. We provide curriculum-aligned lessons to address learning gaps

    Pupils work with the same tutor each week to help identify and address pupils learning gaps.

    Each pupil logs in to the Third Space Learning virtual classroom on a computer or iPad and connects with their tutor via high quality audio headsets — provided free of charge for each pupil. 

  3. You receive regular updates and reports to have an overall and individual view of progress and who’s on track or not.

    After each session, class teachers receive a report for each of their pupils on the programme. This data can be used to monitor pupil progress or inform whole-class teaching.

    Find out more about using your pupil premium funding and National Tutoring Programme funding to contribute towards the cost of one to one maths tuition. 
A Third Space Learning online lesson on how to multiply two fractions.
Year 6 one to one online lesson: how to multiply two fractions.
High-quality resources 

Maths experts and former teachers created Third Space Learning’s classroom resources to help close the attainment gap. 

Our library of over 4,000 resources for both primary and secondary teachers links closely to the National Curriculum — with the primary resources marrying up to the White Rose scheme of work. 

Year after year, teachers tell us how arithmetic resources such as Fluent in Five and reasoning resources such as Rapid Reasoning help close the attainment gap and fuel pupils’ enjoyment of maths.

Many of the resources on offer are adaptable to suit the needs of your class and can be used as whole-class or individual teaching resources to help boost progress and close the maths attainment gap — while reducing teacher workload! 

Register for the Third Space Learning maths hub for thousands of primary resources, or secondary schools can explore the Secondary Resource Library

FAQs

What is meant by the attainment gap?

There are many attainment gaps, but in England, the attainment gap often refers to the difference in educational outcomes between children from lower socioeconomic background and their classmates.

How is the attainment gap measured UK?

The main accountability measure is the progress that children make between the end of Key Stage 2 tests and their GCSEs, calculated as a Progress 8 measure. The attainment gap is measured in different ways at easy stage of compulsory education, for example:
– The phonics screening test at KeyStage 1
– Performance in reading, writing and maths at the end of Key Stage 2
– The number of good GCSE passes including English and Maths at GCSE.

What is the attainment gap in the UK 2023?

– At Key Stage 1 – The proportion of children eligible for the Pupil Premium grant at the end of Key Stage 1 in 2023 was 23%. For these students, 67% met the expected standard in the phonics screening test compared to 83% for their non-disadvantaged classmates. 

– At Key Stage 2 In 2023, at the end of Key Stage 2 30% of pupils were considered disadvantaged. In reading, writing and maths (combined), 44% of disadvantaged pupils met the expected standard in 2023 compared to 66% of other pupils, a difference of 22 percentage points. Whilst this was a decrease of 1% from the previous year, it is still a significant figure.

– At Key Stage 4 In 2023, those eligible for free school meals (one of the eligibility factors for pupil premium funding) only 28.4% achieved a grade 5 or above in English and maths when compared to 55.4% of their peers,

What has been the impact of Covid 19?

The impact of Covid-19 pandemic has had a greater impact on decreasing the attainment of disadvantaged students.

Is the attainment gap closing?

The attainment gap is proving to be stubbornly wide when examined at a national level. 2023 saw small improvements across all stages of education; however, the educational performance of disadvantaged students is still lower and the attainment gap is still wider than 2019 pre-pandemic levels.

Do you have students who need extra support in maths?
Every week Third Space Learning’s maths specialist tutors support thousands of students across hundreds of schools with weekly online 1-to-1 lessons and maths interventions designed to address learning gaps and boost progress.

Since 2013 we’ve helped over 150,000 primary and secondary students become more confident, able mathematicians. Learn more or request a personalised quote for your school to speak to us about your school’s needs and how we can help.

Subsidised one to one maths tutoring from the UK’s most affordable DfE-approved one to one tutoring provider.

David Rogers
David Rogers
Educational consultant
David spent twenty years in challenging schools, including ten in senior leadership. His last post was as Director of Inclusion, including behaviour and SEND oversight. He is a multi-award winning geography teacher and former Chair of Governors. Since leaving teaching, he is a freelance consultant and operates his own mountain leadership business.
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The Senior Leader’s Guide to Pupil Premium [Updated for 2023/24]

The Senior Leader’s Guide to Pupil Premium [Updated for 2023/24]

Everything you need to know about using pupil premium funding effectively to close the attainment gap.

Download FREE Now

The Senior Leader’s Guide to Pupil Premium [Updated for 2023/24]

Downloadable resource

Everything you need to know about using pupil premium funding effectively to close the attainment gap.

Download FREE Now
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The Ultimate Guide to Effective Maths Interventions [FREE]

Find out how to plan, manage, and teach one to one (and small group) maths interventions in primary and secondary schools.

Includes a 20 point checklist of techniques to improve your one to one teaching.

Download free