Bridging the achievement gap


Closing the achievement gap is a challenge every school faces. After an inspiring trip to schools in New Orleans, Jackie Bowen explains how she developed new approaches once back in the UK.

As a new teacher I was stunned to learn the extent of the achievement gap that existed between pupils from more affluent backgrounds and those in receipt of free school meals. 

I was determined to look at ways to change the statistics to ensure every pupil could flourish regardless of which “group” they belonged to whether: White working class boys, SEN students, or those who belonged to a minority ethnic group.

Last year I was lucky enough to be part of an exchange programme to New Orleans with Teaching Leaders and the British Council to look at ways to improve achievement, attainment and aspirations for all students. 

The schools we visited had numerous pupils who had faced adversity, particularly in the wake of hurricane Katrina, but due to relentlessly high expectations and a determination to succeed, these pupils were making exceptional progress. 

The trip was inspirational and allowed me to develop new approaches to closing the achievement gap within my own context.

In September I embarked upon a new role to lead the English department at Cedar Mount Academy, which serves a diverse community of learners in a significantly deprived area of East Manchester. 

In New Orleans, Jay Altman, who founded the charter school movement in America, talked about creating a “system of schools” rather than a “school system”. The Bright Futures Educational Trust (of which Cedar Mount is one of the six founding members) was exactly this: a trust of very different academies all striving towards outstanding outcomes for young people, regardless of the adversities they face.

Vision and values 

To ensure these ambitious aims were met it was vital to establish a collective vision and mission within the English department so that each member of staff truly understood what we were trying to achieve. 

Having a shared vision and a strong set of values meant that all members of the team were focused, determined and striving for excellence. This was established through a team meeting where all members of the department outlined their own values and what they thought we could achieve. 

As a team, we agreed that the key measure of our success would not just be the proportion of pupils who attained grades A* to C in English, but maximising the number of students who were on track to make three levels of progress and beyond. 

This focus on all students meant that we could target resources not just at the C/D borderline but for all students who needed extra support to reach their potential.

Furthermore the principal, Sam Sweeney, and the senior team fully supported our vision and supported our ambitious aims. This support has been vital to ensure that we can succeed and have senior expertise to help us reach and surpass our targets.

Leadership at all levels

The buy-in from the team was incredible and a number of teachers volunteered to research and devise strategies for particular groups of learners that statistically under-achieve. This was only successful because all members of the team had “bought in” and having a focus meant they were actively contributing to the vision. 

The impact of this meant that all members of the team had a key responsibility and were also developing their own pedagogy and practice to ensure we had explored all solutions. Some of the projects we have implemented have been a great success, including:

  • Using technology to improve boys’ writing.

  • Phonics intervention for SEN students. 

  • Reading challenges for English as an additional language (EAL) learners.

  • Targeted mentoring for under-achieving students.

We have also looked extensively at data, not just nationally but within our own context, to project potential under-achievers and target intervention and support strategies much earlier. By evaluating and refining our approaches we are seeing enhanced attainment across the school.

Consistently high expectations

Leaders at all levels need to ensure they model the behaviours that they want to engender in their teams. I have worked alongside the senior and middle leadership teams to create an atmosphere of trust, support and positivity, meaning not only our pupils feel valued members of the school community, but that staff feel proud to work within our school and supported to become outstanding practitioners.

Low expectations are often the biggest barrier to pupil achievement. Having high expectations for myself, our team and our students has meant that pupils have a new-found confidence in their abilities and are constantly challenged to achieve more. 

As a result, staff members are also developing confidence and are embracing opportunities to grow and develop. This has been achieved by having regular praise days for staff and students to show support and appreciation for their hard work.

Culture of collaboration

In New Orleans, every school had a distinct culture and approach to creating it. At Cedar Mount the culture is focused on all learners achieving, which is mirrored in the aspirational targets set by both middle and senior leaders. Throughout the trust there is a wealth of expertise, such as SEN support from the outstanding Melland High School, CPD offered through the Teaching School at Altrincham Grammar, and literacy expertise from our partner primary schools.

This access to CPD has seen members of my team working alongside teachers and support staff from a range of schools on innovative programmes such as Challenge the Gap and the Bright Futures Project. The benefits of these programmes have been far-reaching, allowing staff and students access to new pedagogy and learning experiences while raising aspirations.

This spirit of collaboration and sharing practice was something I wanted to engender within the department and so we have implemented:

  • Team-teaching.

  • Peer-observations.

  • Paired learning walks.

  • A resource bank.

  • Collaborative approaches to curriculum planning.

  • CPD library.

These strategies have ensured that staff members have an ownership of the department and all initiatives and subsequently learnt a great deal through the expertise within the team. 

Sharing success

In the last six months we have had a number of successes for our students with internal tracking data showing that we are set to surpass prior results. As a middle leader it is imperative to share these successes to build a team spirit. 

This term we have also been working closely with other departments to develop effective strategies and techniques to ensure consistent practice in terms of literacy and approaches to developing pupils’ aspirations. This has predominantly been with our own maths department. We are also developing new and innovative ways of collaborating with our partner schools to develop smooth transition and accelerated levels of progress.

  • Jackie Bowen is a Fellow on the Teaching Leaders 2011 cohort and a Teach First ambassador (2009). She has recently been promoted to assistant vice-principal of achievement at Cedar Mount High School in Greater Manchester.

Teaching Leaders
Teaching Leaders is an education charity whose mission is to address educational disadvantage by developing middle leaders working in schools in the most challenging contexts. The charity is currently recruiting its next cohort of middle leaders to start the Fellows programme in 2013. Visit



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