How to close the attainment gap: reject disadvantaged pupils unless they're previous high achievers
It’s essential, politicians say, for schools to close the gap in GCSE achievement between disadvantaged and advantaged pupils.
But very few schools manage it. Only 102 out of 3,526 secondary schools with available data had a Progress 8 (P8) score that was higher for pupils eligible for free school meals (FSM) than non-FSM pupils where both groups scored above the base score of zero.
Andy Ratcliffe, Impetus-PEF, the consultancy behind the research, told Schools Week that English schools should ‘want to “bottle up” the work of these schools and emulate it’.
But seven of the ‘Top Ten’ English schools with higher FSM than non-FSM P8 scores are selective schools. It appears, then, the way to emulate the success of these grammar schools is to select only those disadvantaged pupils with previous high achievement. There would be no attainment gap between disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged pupils to begin with.
There were three comprehensive schools in the list, however. Two, Dixons Trinity Academy and Reach Academy Feltham, were free schools which had the luxury of building up their intake year-on-year. This gave them a chance to promote their ethos from day-one and build a good relationship with a small number of children. This is something that existing schools can’t do.
Nevertheless, the results of these two schools are impressive. But how comprehensive are they? Data shows the 2017 GCSE cohort in both these schools was skewed to the top end*.
It would be churlish, however, to say skewed intakes in the two comprehensive free schools were solely responsible for their success. Both schools shared their qualities with Schools Week.
The executive principal of Dixons Trinity said high results were due to policies including the ‘whole school being designed around our most vulnerable student’, ‘achievement-orientated culture’, double-staffing core subjects’ and daily feedback.
Ed Vainker, Reach Academy’s principal, admitted ‘starting from scratch’ helped the school build ‘powerful relationships between teachers, pupils and their families.’ Other helpful strategies include ‘Home visits before the start of term and using teachers’ first names, as well as a team of counsellors available daily for mental health issues’.
This seems a welcome change of emphasis from the ‘No Excuses’ model prized by schools minister Nick Gibb.
The other comprehensive, Brampton Manor Academy, also has an intake skewed to the top*. Schools Week contained no quotes from the school but Ofsted judged it Outstanding in all four categories in 2012.
These three comprehensives have qualities which could be emulated by other schools. And the top selective schools likely share these qualities but they are only accessible to the carefully-selected few.
Hundreds of other secondary schools will have similar qualities but not necessarily be closing the attainment gap. While a few schools are successful, many fail on this measure. But failure is the wrong word – poverty is a handicap. Yes, poverty can be overcome but education alone can’t compensate for its dragging-down effect. It needs to be combined with strategies to raise families out of poverty.
Dixons Trinity Academy
13 out of 111 pupils had low prior attainment, 56 prior middle attainers, 40 previously-high attainers.
Reach Academy Feltham
Two of 44 pupils had low prior attainment, 26 prior middle attainers, 13 previously-high attainers.
Brampton Manor Academy
25 out of 261 pupils had low prior attainment, 119 were middle attainers, 98 previously-high attainers.