Research raises questions about attainment gap accountability


Factors beyond teachers’ control are chiefly to blame for the persistence of the attainment gap, rather than any school-related policy, new research suggests. Pete Henshaw explains.

Huge pressure has been placed on schools in recent years to close the attainment gap between disadvantaged students and their peers.

However, new research has suggested that those who accuse schools of “failing” when they do not close this gap have misunderstood the nature of the problem.

The analysis by Professor Steve Strand of the University of Oxford, an expert in school results data, finds that the “pervasiveness” of the attainment gap throughout all types of institutions suggests that it is not a problem caused by a school’s policies, but by wider factors outside of their gates.

Furthermore, current accountability measures do not recognise the effects of poverty on achievement and may make it harder for institutions serving disadvantaged communities, Prof Strand has said.

Prof Strand, who presented his paper – Moderators of the FSM Achievement Gap: Being more able or poor in an affluent school – at the annual conference of the British Educational Research Association last month, says it is not a question of apportioning blame, but of “recognising the importance of other factors”.

He said that while schools should always strive to close the FSM gap, his findings indicate that a “punitive approach to ‘failing’ schools misconstrues the nature of the problem”.

His analysis found that the gap between non-free school meal (FSM) and FSM pupils in Ofsted “outstanding” schools when it comes to gaining five GCSE A* to Cs including English and maths is 25 points – 75 per cent of non-FSM against 50 per cent of FSM students. 

In schools judged as “good”, the figures are 64 per cent non-FSM and 39 per cent FSM – also a 25-point gap. And in Ofsted “requires improvement” and “inadequate” schools the gap is again similar, at 22 points.

In terms of progress, Prof Strand also found that while there were some variations, generally FSM students made three GCSE grades’ less progress than non-FSM pupils, even after taking into account other background factors.

At the same time, he found an FSM gap in nearly all schools. A total of 92 per cent of English secondary schools had a gap between FSM and non-FSM pupils of at least one grade overall, while FSM pupils were ahead by at least one grade in just two per cent of schools.

The paper concludes that even if we improved all “inadequate” schools to the level of those judged “outstanding”, there would still be a FSM gap of much the same size as we have today.

It states: “While the outstanding schools ‘raise the bar’ they do not ‘close the gap’, the FSM gap is identical in outstanding, good, satisfactory or inadequate schools.”

In the research paper’s conclusion, Prof Strand adds: “Schools do not appear to be the major cause of the FSM gap since there appears to be an FSM gap in nearly all schools. Factors outside the school gates (in the home, wider community or peer groups) are likely to be more influential. 

“This is not a question of blame, but of recognising the importance of other factors: for example children who grow up in poverty may do less well in education because they have parents who are more stressed, less able to afford educational activities and resources, and less well-placed to help them with their school work. 

“This is not to say that schools should not do everything possible to strive to close the FSM gap, but does indicate that a punitive approach to ‘failing’ schools misconstrues the nature of the problem.”

As a result, Prof Strand contends that by failing to account for any of these factors beyond the school gates, accountability systems, including performance tables and Ofsted, are “biased” against schools with more disadvantaged students.

The introduction of the new Progess 8 performance measure to league tables in 2017 will see schools judged on the progress their students make in their best eight subjects, as opposed to how many reach the C benchmark.

However, Prof Strand calls in his paper for the old Contextual Value Added (CVA) measure to be reinstated. He concludes: “By failing to account for any factors associated with pupil background or the socio-economic composition of the school, current accountability mechanisms such as performance tables and Ofsted inspections, are biased against schools serving more disadvantaged intakes. 

“These are a disincentive for talented teachers and school leaders to work in the more challenging schools. It is important that schools are accountable for the progress of their students relative to schools with similar intakes, not for ‘raw’ attainment outcomes. 

“Measures of school effectiveness based on Contextual Value Added, removed from accountability processes in 2010, should be reinstated.”

Prof Strand also found that schools with a high proportion of FSM pupils faced particular challenges and a greater concentration of poverty was associated with poorer achievement among non-FSM pupils.

However, there was little association between the proportion of FSM pupils in a school and the academic performance of those FSM pupils – who tended to achieve similarly low levels regardless of the number of other disadvantaged students in the school.

Prof Strand added: “The key message is that the low achievement and below average progress of pupils on FSM is an issue for every school in England, whether in inner city urban areas or leafy rural shires.”

Further information
The British Educational Research Association is a charity which exists to encourage educational research and its application for the improvement of practice. Visit


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