Hurdling the attainment gap


With a look at the key role that physical exercise can play. Karen Sullivan continues her focus on strategies to help you close the attainment gap.

The consistent media attention on the attainment gap would have you believe that a child who starts or falls behind because of personal circumstances will never be able to catch up nor match the achievement of more advantaged peers. The truth is that this is simply not the case. 

In my last column, we looked a some of the ways that culture and creativity can encourage cognitive development above and beyond any of the usual limiting parameters (see

Another key factor is physical exercise, which has now been shown to enhance cognitive development and performance, and improve achievement levels across the spectrum. Raspberry et al (2011) found that regular physical activity seems to have a positive impact on academic performance through a variety of direct and indirect physiological, cognitive, emotional and learning mechanisms.

According to A Physical Education Trial Improves Adolescents’ Cognitive Performance and Academic Achievement (Ardoy, Fernandez-Rodriquez, Jimenez-Pavon, Castillo, Ruiz and Ortega, 2014), “current research on brain development indicates that cognitive development occurs in tandem with motor ability (Smith et al, 1999). Cognitive and motor skills appear to develop through a dynamic interaction”.

Research has shown that physical movement can affect the brain’s physiology by increasing cerebral capillary growth, blood flow, oxygenation, growth of nerve cells in the part of the brain that governs learning and memory, and more. Regardless of background, all children will respond to and benefit from very regular, vigorous physical activity.

Another proven way to encourage healthy cognitive development in adolescence is to encourage problem-solving skills and decision-making. Even something as simple as a high-octane basketball, football or netball match can thus work on multiple levels – not just physical – as participants are forced to make decisions and think quickly as they play.

Providing opportunities for problem-solving within the team framework, such as asking students to provide a comprehensive series of tactics, work out the high-quality calories necessary to sustain energy levels throughout a match, analyse the opposition’s performance, and come up with solutions for shortcomings in the team performance, can not only foster skills that will encourage healthy cognitive development, but also help to create neuro-pathways that will be used within more academic settings.

Exercise that encourages higher cardio-respiratory fitness is associated with better academic achievement regardless of family background. And it is interesting to consider the fact that one of the difficulties experienced by disadvantaged children is that they lack a support network, and often a sense of belonging. Team sports can help to overcome this, providing a cohesive unit in which adolescents play a particular role. It makes sense that other research has shown that physical activity in school can have a positive impact on behaviour and attitudes, too, which are important components of improved academic results.

The most success appears to be gained when the number of PE sessions per week is increased, as well as the intensity of the sessions. It seems that increasing intensity over the sessions is also a factor in cognitive performance. It is worth pointing out that there are a multitude of studies showing that taking time away from academic subjects in order to focus on PE does not have any harmful effects on grades or achievement levels. In fact, the opposite is true.

What I find most fascinating about all of this is that, contrary to what certain government officials claim to be the holy grail in terms of improving achievement for all students, regardless of background (ie, a return to a focus on old-school subjects and teaching methods), it is music, drama, art, culture, creativity and opportunities for regular intense physical exercise that can improve cognition, learning, results and, most of all, aspirations for all. We’ll touch on more of that in my next column.

  • Karen Sullivan is a best-selling author, psychologist and childcare expert. Email


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