Closing the Gap

The contrast in attainment between the wealthiest and poorest students is one of a number of stubborn achievement ‘gaps’ that still exist in our schools – but we can tackle it, says headteacher Peter Kent.

If you’ve ever stepped of a train neglected to ‘mind the gap’ the chances are that you fell flat on your face on the station platform.

The same sort of gaps have existed for years in our schools – and the danger is that if they go unchecked they could trip up the progress made by the entire education system.

Whilst over the past 10 to 15 years results have improved for many students, there still remain a number of groups who lag behind national averages. The challenge facing the education system is what action should we take to eradicate these gaps.

As an individual school leader such issues can be rather overwhelming. However, help is on hand in the form of a framework produced by the National College for Leadership of Schools and Children’s Services that draws together all that we know about the gaps that exist between different groups and the ways in which schools have been able to combat them.

Like all the best research, some of their findings challenged my assumptions. As the headteacher of a boys school, I was interested to discover that the smallest gap was that which exists between the achievement of boys and girls (47.3 per cent to 54.5 per cent on 5 A*-C including English and Mathematics). Whilst the framework also highlights the significant gaps that exist between a range of ethnic groups, my attention was particularly caught by the largest gap that still exists within the English system.

The wealthiest and poorest students continue to achieve dramatically different different outcomes (74 per cent A*-C compared to 17 per cent). Whilst the results of the most disadvantaged students have improved over recent years, this improvement has not been as rapid as the upward curve in the results of more advantaged students.

The result is that an achievement gap which has existed in the UK system for over a century still remains stubbornly high.

Whilst there are a variety of complex explanations for a gap which the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) says is a distinctive feature of UK schools, what is more important is the way in which we can take action to finally begin to reduce it.

The National College suggests a variety of ways in which this can be done.

Firstly, all of us who are school leaders need to target the issue as a high priority, creating a vision which focuses upon all students achieving their potential. At the heart of this will be always be strategies to improve teaching and learning.

One striking example of this is the research led by the National College and the TDA into ways to reduce the variation that exists within schools. We are very used to comparing one school with another, but by looking inwards and learning lessons from the most successful practice within the organisation, some schools have made dramatic progress in reducing the gaps noted above.

Approaches used have been deceptively simple, based upon the idea that every institution will have within it examples of highly effective practice. The problem is that this powerful practice may not be widely shared, meaning that students with similar potential may experience very different outcomes within the same school. Professor David Reynolds, whose research has inspired much of the project, argues that if we can make the practice of the best teachers within the school more widely known, then many of the gaps discussed earlier can be reduced.

How can this be done? Ideas include making data more transparent and easily accessible, so that everyone is aware of the gaps that exist. Teachers can be encouraged to learn from one another by observing one another teach and then comparing the examples of good practice that they have learnt. Standard operating procedures can also be used, allowing everyone in the school to adopt the same approach to issues such as behaviour and homework deadlines. Feedback from students has also played a critical part, with students sharing the most helpful approaches to learning that they have experienced. Refreshingly, all of these approaches focus upon sharing what is best and making it more widely known, rather than highlighting the negative.

All of us working in education would acknowledge that not all of the gaps which exist can be addressed exclusively within the classroom. The National College framework acknowledges this, suggesting that the wider community has to have a role and that more needs to be done to create closer partnerships with parents. However, we do have influence over what happens within the classroom and it is here that we can have a significant impact.

For as long as schools have existed, there have been variations and gaps. However, just because something has been around for a long time, it does not mean that it is unavoidable. The National College’s new framework gives a chance for all of us in schools to take stock and think about how we can learn from the practice of our best teachers in order to give everyone a better deal.

First published in Secondary Headship.

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