Common problems with narrowing the gap – and some solutions


What are the most common ‘narrowing the gap’ problems in secondary schools and what are some of the solutions that prove effective? Daniel Sobel takes a look

Pupil Premium reviews that I and my colleagues carry out tend to throw up the same, recurring and persistent themes – despite the disparate geography and particular circumstances of each school.

Many of these themes can be explained by looking at the very structure of the average secondary school, which poses completely different challenges to their primary school counterparts.

Structural factors may include the sheer number of students, maintaining quality of information for such a large quantity of students, significant numbers of transitions and, of course, inheriting already ingrained issues from feeder schools.

In this article I share some simple solutions to the most commonly found “narrowing the gap” problems.

Work together with your feeder schools

One of the first questions I ask when analysing the inclusion gap data in a secondary school is: “Which primary schools do your Pupil Premium students actually come from and can we identify a theme of a single or small group of feeder primary schools which are sending you students with the biggest gaps?”

The gap – which usually emerges as young as the age of three – will be more significant and entrenched by the time the pupils reach your door. 

Don’t wait this long: be proactive in helping your primary schools and in doing this you will increase the likelihood of your school having a long-term impact on the attainment gap of your free school meal (FSM) students.

Nearly always then, the secondary head will invite their local primary school leadership teams for narrowing the gap discussions which I will lead, and those present always feel that working together for the same aim is far more sensible than working independently. 

The benefits are obvious for catching gap issues early and improving the hard data of the students before they even arrive in your school. 

I have worked with many wonderful primary school leaders, and even the best of them would acknowledge that a co-supportive, collaborative effort is the most effective way to narrow the gap, and that trying to narrow the gap from the age of 11 is simply too late.

Conduct your reviews in June and July

As with any industry or sector, the last thing that staff want to do in the weeks before the summer break is to spend hours at a computer, particularly when the sun is finally shining and the year is nearly over.

Many schools with which I have worked tell me that, once the summer exam season is over, people tend to take a deep breath and slow down the pace. 

While this is only human and completely understandable, I strongly recommend to senior leaders that they should carry out all inclusion planning in June and July, to be fully prepared for the forthcoming year – instead of doing it all with a sense of urgency in September.

This includes SEN and Pupil Premium reviews of both student and provision results, in hard data and soft data. Most importantly, all of the student information that teachers need in order to personalise and differentiate can be updated.

The problem with leaving inclusion planning until September is that it will then be October half-term before provisions are implemented and then it will take time for those to have any impact and, of course, before you know it December is on the horizon before you can take a view about your inclusion plans.

Rather than losing precious months at the start of the next academic year and spending too long playing “catch-up”, aim to hit the ground running by maximising the impact of your strategy.

Create a meaningful transition process

It is a common finding that a school’s most challenging students – those ones that become most time-consuming – could have been addressed and supported more effectively at the key stage 2 to 3 transition.

Of course this support does take time, but time spent at this stage prevents later heartache and fewer cases where things go more significantly wrong. 

This involves students who should have an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP) but for some reason don’t, complex child protection issues, looked-after children, and of course serious behavioural issues.

I strongly recommend that secondary SENCOs and pastoral leads become involved with the most challenging students when they begin in year 5. This gives ample time to press for the EHCP, meet with parents or guardians, and be present at team meetings. It also allows you to begin your campaign for focused and appropriate provision to support their transition to the relatively less predictable environment of secondary school.

How to best handle these types of situations is beyond the scope of this article but be assured that these challenges affect all schools – aside from those who are particularly savvy about “strongly suggesting a parent seeks a more appropriate school setting elsewhere” – a scandal waiting to be uncovered.

Managing complex mid-phase transitions can involve taking migrant students who may lack any educational “file”, speak zero English and who may never have experienced western-style education. However, the most challenging cases tend to be “managed moves”. In my experience, the common failings here stem from the lack of a meaningful transition which should have been focused on trying to get right everything that had gone wrong in the previous school, accompanied by a carefully staged integration and whatever necessary support the SEN panel may need to supply on an emergency basis.

A slow, phased integration into a new environment gives both student and staff the time to get to know each other and build up a series of small but important successes upon which to build a trusting relationship.

Understand the need – and start in year 7

A commonly asked question from heads is: “What should I do first to narrow the gap?”

My answer is consistently – make sure you have an accurate understanding of the needs of your students. This is not as obvious as it sounds. 

Usually, when I lift up the bonnet by carrying out an in-depth SEN review following a Pupil Premium review, where a large gap persists, there is a hornets’ nest of unaddressed SEN issues, especially in speech, language and communication.

Secondary schools are good at finding most needs that can be caught in the broad fishing net of cognitive assessments and a battery of reading comprehension tests for the new intake. However, these do not catch students who struggle with language acquisition or word recall. These two needs alone can have a massive impact on all progress, especially as GCSEs test the use of new vocabulary in all subjects.

Fascinatingly, in most schools I visit, I find a wide gap in cohorts of year 9 boys for maths. Waiting until years 10 or 11 to fix the issue is frankly missing the boat. Ideally, this needs to be caught in year 7. Most often the cause is less dyscalculia and more “I never liked numeracy at primary school”. Obviously – ask them!

One secondary school I visited spent some of their Pupil Premium funds by getting their maths department to take their identified cohort on a week’s holiday in the Lake District, where they did lots of outdoor activities as well as maths. Of course, this fixed the real issue: the maths teachers’ relationship with the students.

Ensure your teachers share information effectively

Information management is a very challenging aspect in narrowing the gap. If you are teaching 200 different students and a significant proportion need personalised learning through differentiation then two questions arise. First, how much information does the teacher need to know about each individual student? Second, what is a reasonable amount of differentiation to expect?

This issue involves not just up-skilling in time-saving differentiation and winning hearts and minds, but the actual collating and sharing of information in a time-efficient way.

My rule of thumb is: no more than four bullet points per student. Any more should be relegated to an appendix somewhere in a file in a back office. Simple, bite-size nuggets of advice are ideal – just make sure that your teachers know how to implement something like “pre-learning vocabulary” in a time-efficient manner before you expect it of them.

  • Daniel Sobel is a respected author and lecturer, and the founder of Inclusion Expert. He leads a team which carries out Pupil Premium and SEN reviews across the UK and abroad.

Further information
The Inclusion Expert online Pupil Premium Handbook can be found at


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