Bridging the attainment gap


Research has shown how the attainment gap persists across all types of school. Karen Sullivan discusses the challenges facing schools.

Research featured in SecEd last week shows that disadvantaged children continue to underachieve in the classroom, regardless of whether the school they attend is highly rated by Ofsted (Research raises questions about attainment gap accountability, SecEd 393, October 2, 2014. See

Professor Steve Strand, of Oxford University, claims that the “stubbornness” of the attainment gap across all types of schools suggests that the quality of a school is not enough to overcome a child’s background. He believes that some of the reasons why children who grow up in poverty may do less well in education is “because they have parents who are more stressed, less able to afford educational activities and resources, and less well-placed to help them with school work”, and these are valid points. He also says that while good and outstanding schools may raise the bar for pupils, they do not close the gap.

An increasing amount of pressure is put on schools not just to bridge this gap, but to provide something akin to in loco parentis care for students whose home lives are lacking. From nursery upwards, teachers are tasked with teaching manners, providing nourishment for kids who come to school hungry, and creating a disciplined, structured and supportive environment where children can learn social skills, understand expectations, develop empathy and self-control, learn to problem-solve, and be inspired/motivated to learn.

The fundamental problem is, of course, that many children from difficult backgrounds not only fail to have their basic needs met, but there is little respect for education and teachers, nor any clear set of expectations – goals or aspirations – from parents, which is, of course, fundamental to a child’s success. While schools can play a supportive role, there are societal factors that must be addressed on a much broader scale before disadvantaged children reach their potential.

In my last column (, I looked at the importance of peer relationships and the student-teacher relationship in improving classroom behaviour, and these are as relevant here – providing emotional support, encouragement and, of course, appropriate role-models that can enhance a student’s ability to succeed. Other initiatives include family and community engagement in the school, and efforts to enhance cognitive and social development.

The truth is that not all low-income families fail to provide a decent start for their children, but many struggle to make ends meet (and pay for extra-curricular activities that will enhance development). Furthermore, many parents do not have high levels of education themselves, meaning that by the age of three (according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies and Bristol University), there are already major differences in development between children from richer and poorer backgrounds; by the age of five, disadvantaged children are about eight months behind their peers.

While attempts are being made to improve parenting skills and home environments on a societal level, there is a lot of catching up to do, and the onus is now on educational establishments.

Can you actually undo damage and/or inadequate development in the early years? Is it possible to improve cognitive, social and emotional development during adolescence? It most definitely is. In fact, adolescence is a period of particularly heightened vulnerability and brain development, during which behavioural and cognitive systems mature, and may actually be as important as the early years.

With appropriate intervention and support, development can be encouraged on every level. This, in a nutshell, is one of the few ways that the attainment gap can be bridged, and there are measures that can be employed in both the short and long term to help to achieve this. In my next column, we will examine them in detail.

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


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