Five lessons from Washington for closing the achievement gap


A visit to Washington DC to discover how schools there are closing the achievement gap yielded fascinating results for 12 UK middle leaders. James Watson discusses the five significant lessons he has learnt.

Last month, 12 middle leaders on the Teaching Leaders Fellows programme, all working in schools in challenging contexts, visited Washington DC. The visit was funded by the Department for Education (DfE) and led by the British Council. 

Its purpose was to give middle leaders the opportunity to examine the principles behind the strategies used in DC schools, which are currently helping to close the achievement gap, and identify whether these principles could be translated into the UK context. This was all with a mind to running action research back in the UK based upon the findings from DC. 

Five significant areas were highlighted as the most influential. These were: 

  • Ethos, motivation and expectations.

  • Use of staff.

  • Accountability.

  • Core skills.

  • Time. 

The team visited six schools during the course of one week, charter and non-charter, all known as schools that are ahead of their counterparts in closing the achievement gap.

Ethos and motivation

High aspirations and a culture of self-motivation were integrated into many aspects of the best practice we witnessed by both staff and pupils. It was clear the most successful schools had staff and pupil “buy-in” to their ethos. This was evidenced by:

  • High levels of motivation in lessons.

  • Clear rigour in planning.

  • The use of imaginative resources.

  • Comments from teachers and leaders that staff were expected to work hard.

The principles behind this were explicit in the ethos of the schools – at one school for example: “Every student of every race, socio-economic status, and home language will reach high levels of academic achievement and be prepared to succeed at the college of his or her choice.”

College (university) aspirations were strongly communicated in many of the schools we visited, both visually and in the conversations that took place with staff and pupils. For example, many teachers displayed their university emblems in their classrooms.

Pupils as young as 12 had the opportunity to visit university campuses and all pupils were expected to continue their education post-18. Critically, we saw no evidence in the highest achieving schools of a curriculum “dumbing down” the subject content.

Further motivation was provided in the positive language used by teachers. A focus on improvements rather than grades was the theme in many classrooms. Motivational quotes and visual displays were seen, spoken and often worn as part of the uniform. 

Use of staff

The ratio of staff to pupils in the schools was generally high. The pastoral care of pupils was exceptional in the highest achieving schools. The availability of school counsellors, mental health workers, deans of students, school nurses and college advisors was evident and integrated into school life. Maintaining a high level of teacher quality was quoted as one of the key factors in school success. Fundamental to this were a number of other factors including:

  • Teachers’ curriculum autonomy, flexibility and innovation.

  • The use of non-judgemental instructional coaches.

  • Innovative teacher training.

  • Commitment to the ethos of the school and its structures.

  • Incentivised remuneration and pay flexibility.

Instructional coaches were experienced teachers who no longer taught any classes themselves – we saw them in most of the schools we visited. Teachers who used instructional coaches used them to provide expert pedagogical knowledge, sounding boards for ideas, and one-to-one support for their practice.


Accountability was a theme running throughout our discussions for the week. High expectations of staff and pupils worked in parallel with a culture of accountability. Accountability was driven by the schools ethos and culture of “will do”, “no excuses” and being “college-ready”. The staff reminded pupils of their own responsibilities in a positive way, they were “persistently pleasant”. 

One of the crucial findings of the visit was the division of accountability between pupils and teachers. Pupils knew they had to work hard and try their very best at all times, both inside and outside lessons. 

Pupils who were behind in a particular area would not “fall through the net”, but would be picked up and given more help. The curriculum was flexible and allowed pupils falling behind to receive extra help within the normal school timetable. 

In some schools systems of giving extra help had been implemented into the day-to-day timetable. Teachers would stay behind on certain days to catch up with pupils who were behind, while others would teach enrichment classes in summer and Easter holiday.

Core skills

Literacy was a focus in all the schools visited. Reading programmes, bookshelves and information were present in almost every school classroom. Pupils had reading lessons and the standard of vocabulary in each classroom was high. Students were encouraged to use this vocabulary at all times. 

Competition in the earlier years was prevalent, with vocabulary competitions and records of the numbers of books read on display. In one school, literacy activities focused on questioning and vocabulary were being trialled at the start of each lesson.

To close the achievement gap the schools used the following strategies in improving the core skills of reading and maths:

  • Catch-up curriculum time at point of entry or before: pupils did not study other lessons (e.g. art, music, PE) until they had made significant progress on their reading and maths proficiency.

  • Extra staff-to-pupil contact time: all staff were designated times during the week when they were available for pupils who are falling behind and when they can speak to them (e.g. four 30-minute slots in the mornings and afternoons).

  • Regular testing and intervention: pupils who were behind tested every three to four weeks to measure the impact of intervention. They can then be removed or put into a different type of support.

  • Aspirational curriculum teaching: staff teach to the highest standard in the class and the work is differentiated down (for example, Robert Louis Stephenson to year 7 – students were given a choice of tasks from the text to complete of differing degrees of difficulty).

  • Extra classes and support: pupils falling behind, in particular those from low-income backgrounds, received daily and after-school extra tuition programmes such as algebra, trigonometry, SAT Prep, AP Academy (the equivalent of an A level academy), arts, music and dance.


All the most successful schools visited used time efficiently. This included the use of rotations for staff, extended lesson times, extra lessons, after and pre-school activities, holiday bridging programmes, and work place internships. Again, the time linked clearly into the school ethos of success and high aspirations.

In schools this necessitated an extended school day or a compulsory after-school enrichment programme. Pupils who fell behind or had started with lower proficiency levels automatically enrolled into extra tuition. If pupils failed to reach the required level they would access intervention at different stages. 

Parental involvement was a crucial factor to allow the time for pupils to be in school. Parents had to agree that their children would be in school for longer periods of time through a contract. Once this agreement was made, pupils, parents and teachers could work together to ensure pupils were receiving the relevant support. 

Returning home

On my return to my school – Colne Park High School in Lancashire – I presented my findings to the senior leadership team who were keen to understand the principles behind the success I witnessed in DC, and to relate it to our context. Our last Ofsted inspection said that Colne Park “is characterised by a drive to raise aspirations and bring out the best in each student”.

A consultation process is now taking place with our own staff and students to see how we can enhance this area even further. We hope that the findings from the research visit to DC will help to close our own attainment gaps and raise achievement in our school in the next academic year.

  • James Watson is progress leader at Colne Park High School in Lancashire and a Teaching Leaders Fellow.

Further information
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. It is currently recruiting its next cohort of middle leaders to start the TL Fellows programme in 2013 – the deadline for applications is May 20. Visit

Caption: Gap guidance: The 12 UK middle leaders stop for a quick photograph during their stay in Washington DC. Also pictured (left) is James Toop, CEO of Teaching Leaders


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