Innovations to close the attainment gap

Written by: Various | Published:
Innovation partners: Jamie’s Farm (above) has had a big impact on children’s exclusion rates. The Grub Club (pictured in main article, below) meanwhile, seeks to engage pupils and their families in healthy eating to boost learning

The Teach First Innovation Award supports social enterprises dedicated to tackling educational inequality and closing the attainment gap. We hear from three previous winners about their work and ask for their advice on closing the gap

The issues underpinning educational inequality are vast and require the efforts and expertise of more than just one organisation.

Set up in 2013, and supported by Credit Suisse EMEA Foundation and Esmee Fairburn Foundation, Teach First’s Innovation Unit exists to nurture and support new innovative solutions needed to close the achievement gap between children from poorer backgrounds and their wealthier peers.

Below, three past and present Innovation Partners with Teach First set out some of the challenges that persist in education, how they are addressing these, and what their advice is to schools to further build on where great work exists.

The Grub Club

  • Aisling Kirwan, founder and CEO
  • Twitter: @thegrubclub2015
  • Teach First Innovation Partner 2015/16

When it comes to a child’s education, we talk about teachers, structures, curriculums, but nutrition and diet? They’re not always the first things that come to mind when we think about the best way of improving young people’s educational outcomes.

The Grub Club provides low-income families with the tools required to be nutritionally healthy through free weekly after-school cooking lessons run by trained professionals. Both parents and students enhance their knowledge and skills to make informed nutritional decisions for students to improve brain cognition and achieve their optimum potential.

As I saw through my own experience as a teacher, food insufficiency results from a lack of nutrients required for optimum brain function.

This can occur in students who have sporadic eating patterns or a diet high in sugar and saturated fats. With this in mind, it is worrying that the purchase of ready meals (which contain one third of all sugar and saturated fats that are consumed in the UK) is on the rise, particularly in low-income families.

The impact of this in the classroom is significant given the fact that food-insufficient students will have lower reading ages and numeracy levels as well as suffering with lethargy, and in some cases depression and learning difficulties.

While teaching, I often saw for myself the effects of being food-insufficient. Eager to see every child succeed, I founded the Grub Club. The aim: to address the restrictions to cheap, healthy food by working with families to cook and eat nutritional meals together, and thus allow children to fulfil their basic nutritional requirements, and their potential in school and later life.

So how do we do this, you ask? Community is at the core of the Grub Club with student-adult pairs working collaboratively to produce affordable nutritious meals.

This family approach has a more immediate and long term impact on the nutritional choices made in comparison to single student or parent initiatives.

Alongside teaching families the skills needed to produce nutritious dinners, students gain the knowledge to make wiser decisions at breakfast and lunch, which as research shows, has a really positive impact on their achievement at school.

To date, I have been lucky enough to be able to run the Grub Club in a school setting that is accessible to most families where students can feel comfortable in a familiar space. And fantastically, local communities have shown great interest in supporting schools as reflected in the support from food companies such as Morrisons, Marks and Spencer, Waitrose and The Co-operative.

Following the completion of the course, students and adults become ambassadors and even head chefs of the Grub Club to assist the running of subsequent courses. This opportunity aims to further develop participants’ leadership skills, which are universally transferable.

Though still in its infancy, I really believe that the Grub Club offers a great opportunity for schools to link their Pupil Premium fund to parental engagement, student nutrition, student achievement, extra-curricular opportunities and the development of important life-skills. For a small fee, schools can run this 10-week course for several families at a time.

Schools play a vital role in student attainment and wellbeing, with a growing pressure on schools to take a proactive role in promoting and enabling healthy eating. It is really exciting to see so many schools adapting to these expectations, but we cannot expect them to fulfil these duties alone.

Through the Teach First Innovation Award, and the increased interest from schools, companies and volunteers, I look forward to building on our success to date, and helping schools and families to give children the nutrition and learning they deserve.

The Girls Network

From our work with hundreds of young girls in the UK, in schools serving the least advantaged communities, we know that one of the most common traps for how we talk about helping girls involves perpetuating the gender stereotypes and expectations that can so often hold them back.
That being said, the research does highlight some useful trends found across classrooms that we can learn from in order to ensure that girls can thrive.

So what does the research show? First, that girls and boys tend to respond differently to feedback. Girls are prone to holding on to the seemingly negative aspects of feedback; boys, far more likely to recall the positive.

The impact of this over a childhood can massively affect how you see, and judge, yourself. Is it any wonder that anxiety is such a big problem in our schools – and particularly for young women?
So, let’s think about how we give feedback, and ensure constructive feedback really is taken in that way.

Second, that girls are often terrified of getting it wrong – a result in part, of what is praised (girls are observed to be praised for “getting it right” far more frequently than boys). From our experience in the classroom, we know how important learning from our mistakes is, so we must encourage risk-taking and develop resilience in our boys and girls. Let’s have safe spaces for girls to fail and try again.

Finally, research has shown that, despite efforts to the contrary, young people still hold largely “gendered” expectations of the subjects and careers that are “for boys” or “for girls”.
You only have to speak to STEM industries to hear that not enough girls are taking the right subjects at university to even qualify them for many of the jobs they are recruiting for.

The Girls’ Network is an award winning charity that matches girls from low socio-economic backgrounds with inspirational female mentors from all walks of life.

Jamie’s Farm

You would be forgiven for asking the question: what do farms have to do with closing the education gap?

At Jamie’s Farm, our mission is to support young people at risk of social and academic exclusion and re-engage them with education through an immersive residential experience of farming, family and therapy, combined with a rigorous follow-up process that helps to sustain the changes that happen during the residential visit.

Our relentlessly positive approach develops the building blocks of children’s emotional wellbeing, by nourishing them through outcome-based sessions and therapeutic input.

Having worked with more than 2,800 children from deprived communities, we have had considerable impact in reducing exclusion rates in schools and getting pupils back on track in core subjects as a result of our intervention.

Despite the emphasis that is placed on “closing the gap” academically within schools currently, we still find that there is a limit to the amount that this will be successful in many schools.

In our view, and in the views of many of the school leaders that we work with, it is the unmet emotional needs of many disadvantaged pupils that form a primary barrier to closing the gap.

The former Pupil Premium champion, Sir John Dunford, notes that emotional underdevelopment and a lack of cultural capital form some of the most significant underlying causes for underachievement in certain communities.

Yet sadly, through our own work in schools, we have found that there is a limited amount of expertise within schools at present to support children therapeutically and to develop the “soft-skills” – such as perseverance, grit and optimism – that are so crucial to future success.

This not only has a consequence in lower than expected attainment in school exams but also in progressing in the labour market, compared to their more affluent peers – even when they do just as well as them in exams.

And this is primarily because they haven’t developed some of those other skills and personal qualities that are so important in later life.

We believe educational practitioners in school need to be further trained to support children in this area, and schools should ensure that where necessary, they are paying for expert support to help with this process.

Teach First Innovation Award

This year’s Innovation Award saw four initiatives win £15,000 and professional support from Teach First. The winners were the Grub Club, the Graduate School of Education, Mindful Music, and Tales Toolkit.

The Teach First Innovation Unit currently supports 20 social enterprises and education-focused innovations to accelerate their impact and growth and better address the challenges underpinning educational inequality in the UK.

Bringing together individuals from across society including businesses and Teach First’s Ambassador Community, the Innovation Partners have worked with nearly 1,000 schools and universities and more than 60,000 young people across England and Wales.

For more information, visit


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