The Gap Exposed

John Mountford's picture


 A previous article entitled 'The Attainment Gap Exposed' has been deleted. This completed update replaces it.


Have you ever thought, is narrowing the attainment gap an objective that can be realised? It's not about whether a gap exists. It certainly does. It's rather about the need to understand its true nature. It is my view that schools, politicians and academics appear unwilling to acknowledge what lies at the heart of this problem because of their profound discomfort in processing an uncomfortable truth. You might ask, why does this matter?

Imagine a physician presented with a patient suffering from hypertension, instead diagnosing it to be a case of chronic heartburn and treating it accordingly. This would be in direct contradiction to the evidence and could result in a serious deterioration in the patient’s wellbeing. It would not be an acceptable course of action. Our handling of the Gap is closely akin to this exact scenario.

In essence, we have got it wrong. I propose the problem relating to the attainment gap is not being properly diagnosed. It is a natural phenomenon, albeit one severely exacerbated by personal, social and economic factors, arising directly out of genetic differences between populations of individuals.

To be absolutely clear from the outset, our genes do not determine education outcomes, any more than they determined that Usain Bolt would turn into the incredible athlete he undoubtedly is. It was a complex combination of natural genetic endowments, environmental influences, personal motivations and among other things, an element of luck, that brought about his remarkable achievements.

These same elements combine in inextricably complex ways to make us all who we are. The outcome of the whole endeavour is unknown and unknowable from the start. Predicting the likely future state for even the most simple conscious living organism is fraught with difficulties. How much more irrelevant is such an exercise for humans?

Recently, Rebecca Allen, Professor of Education at UCL Institute of Education, published a series of three blogs entitled ‘The Pupil Premium Is Not Working’. The focus of those articles was to question the universally accepted notion that the attainment gap is closing because of policies put in place, like the Pupil Premium, to address the educational outcomes of specific individuals.

In the first of the articles the professor poses the vitally important question, “Is the idea of closing the gap the same as helping those most likely to fall behind?”

Though she does not directly offer an answer, I believe she argues throughout that these are not the same. It is my contention that the ongoing debate about policy, intended to address disadvantage and social mobility, makes a great deal of ‘closing the gap’ when there is very little evidence that this is even a meaningful endeavour. It is becoming clear, it is time to switch the focus from ‘closing the gap’ to actually helping those most likely to fall behind.

The argument here is not that we cannot address disadvantage. There are ways of improving the lot of many who, through no fault of their own, see themselves on the outside, with fewer opportunities to improve their life chances. There are proven pedagogies that add value to the educational outcomes of pupils of all abilities. In fact, our insistence that the Gap is something for which there is a cure, adds directly to our failure to offer effective support to the most needy because or energy is being dissipated by this false premise. That we persist with this approach, at the expense of focusing on effective, targeted reforms of education, is the reason these individuals feel, indeed are, left behind. 

In developing her theme, Professor Allen regards ‘ability’ as something that determines a child’s sensitivity to methods of instruction; so the question for us should be what classroom instructional approaches help those children most at risk of falling behind, unable to make the most of their talents and abilities?

The professor emphasises the view that "paying more attention to variation in cognitive function within a class has far more value than their pupil premium status. Cognitive functions are top-down processes, initiated from the pre-frontal cortex of the brain, that are required for deliberate thought processes such as forming goals, planning ahead, carrying out a goal-directed plan, and performing effectively.”

As she points out, the greatest "inequalities in our schooling system largely emerge between children who are sitting in the same classroom." This is not to overlook the impact of social disadvantage on development and achievement. It is rather a frank acknowledgement that schools are only able to take direct action to tackle disadvantage if they focus attention on teaching and learning. Repeatedly, she makes the case, now well rehearsed in wider society, that the narrow focus of concentrating on test outcomes has taken attention away from proven ways of raising the attainment of all pupils. Even Ofsted recognises the harm done by this blinkered approach where accountability takes precedence over the quality of education.

Commenting on schools having to account for the effectiveness of the pupil premium funding, Professor Allen states, "it isn’t possible for a school to conduct the impact analysis required by DfE and Ofsted to ‘prove’ that their pupil premium strategy is working for all the usual reasons. Sample sizes in schools are usually far too small to make any meaningful inferences about the impact of expenditure, and no school ever gets to see the counterfactual (what would have happened without the money)." Her concern, and one I share, is that effort and time are devoted to the accountability exercise for very little return for the school and that confers no benefit on pupils.

Professor Allen presents a very compelling case that this way of doing things is doomed to fail. Like her, I believe our energies need to be diverted towards “constructing classrooms that give the greatest chance of success to those most likely to fall behind”. It doesn’t stop with just these pupils. In adopting this strategy, everyone benefits. This is how we can, in part, answer the question she poses. “Is the idea of closing the gap the same as helping those most likely to fall behind?”

If we adjust our understanding, as I argue here, we accept that the attainment gap cannot be closed. On the other hand we can and should do more to help those most likely to fall behind. How are we to be confident that we can identify these students? Do we stick with the idea that FSM (free school meals) selects them for us

The professor argues, like other commentators, including the Education Endowment Foundation that FSM does not identify all the most disadvantaged pupils. Using any of the national tests or assessments carried out at primary school, likewise, is not a reliable indicator. As the Chief HMI, Amanda Spielman, says in her latest announcements, the importance of league tables to schools has encouraged gaming of the system.

Replacing the Key Stage 2 SATs with cognitive ability tests for all Yr 6 pupils would release schools from the tyranny of testing at 11 and offer secondary schools a more reliable base from which to set targets for progress and attainment, if this is to remain a key objective.

Professor Allen plainly sees a role for cognitive ability testing. In discussing children from disadvantaged backgrounds she writes, "The child’s cognitive function might lead them to struggle" and they may need support at school because of this. In her advice to school managers and teachers she writes, "What matters is that they use instructional methods that give students in their class the best possible chances of success, given the variation in cognitive function they will possess." This is where the focus on cognitively developmental teaching has so much to offer.

On a related issue, recent research into the role of cognitive ability supports the general premise of this present article.

“In education research and education policy, much attention is paid to schools, curricula, and teachers, but little attention is paid to the characteristics of students. Differences in general cognitive ability (g) are often overlooked as a source of important variance among schools and in outcomes among students within schools.”

‘Using Standardised Test Scores to Include General Cognitivve Ability Intelligence in Education Research and Policy’ Jonathan Wai, Matt I. Brown and Christopher F. Chabris


More recently, Professor Allen hosted a Radio 4 Analysis programme exploring the Pupil Premium, interviewing a number of guests.

Apart from revisiting the issues raised in her three blogs, she makes an interesting observation about a comment made by Sir Kevan Collins, Chief Executive of the Education Endowment Foundation. In line with the government’s position, Sir Kevan made the case for the gap gradually closing. Clearly anticipating that eventually it will close more significantly and maybe even cease to be a problem. In sharp contrast, Professor Allen explains that our inability to measure the gap reliably is more than a passing phenomenon. There is simply no way around the issue of needing to compare like with like. Not only do the individuals qualifying for the pupil premium change over time, as do the tests and examinations administered, there is also the counterfactual to consider. How do we know that pupils would not have made more or less progress under different circumstances?  

There is another question that will not simply go away, just because it is an inconvenience for those dedicated to closing the gap through policy choices and additional funding. Professor Allen asks, “Is it possible to teach in a way that disproportionally benefits those in the classroom from disadvantaged backgrounds?” This, after all, is precisely what the creation of the pupil premium was designed to achieve and this is why the EEF was set up.

The ‘gap’ is real. However, it is not what some purport it to be. It is the product of the natural distribution of differences between individuals in a population. It is unrealistic to expect there not to be these differences. It may be inevitable that these differences exist, as they always have, but this does not translate into a situation where we simply have to accept what is. Strategies presently employed by society to narrow the gap are not effective and there is little to indicate this will change. However if we are daring enough to change the story we can drastically change the outcome.

There are alternatives to the present relentless testing and the growing excessive reliance on data. When teachers apply pedagogic practices that promote cognitive development, pupils of all abilities benefit. There are these other routes to take and there are other ways to spend the pupil premium and all school funding.

As Professor Allen points out, “When we teach children from households that are educationally disengaged there is a lot we can do to help by way of pastoral and cultural support. This costs money and monitoring test scores isn’t the right way to check this provision is appropriate." The fact is that much of the evidence from these sorts of ‘soft’ interventions is difficult to identify and therefore to quantify. That said, it should not deter schools from making such spending choices if it is in the interests of their pupils. Freedom to pursue this course should not be an issue.

What we know is that in certain carefully considered circumstances, if we are bold enough,  schools will have more time and freedom to respond to their own community of learners, free from the fear of retribution from outside agencies and free to apply solutions that are known to work. Even if they don’t result in removing the Gap, they will improve the quality of lives and educational opportunities for generations to come.

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