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Mind the Gap

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Sir Peter Lampl reflects on attainment gaps as the EEF celebrates its 5th birthday.

On Tuesday, we celebrated five years of the Education Endowment Foundation. In that time, the EEF has become a watchword for evidence-based education, helping move research onto the teachers’ agenda in ways not previously seen in this country.

The Teaching and Learning Toolkit, developed initially by the Sutton Trust and now hosted and updated by the EEF, has made research accessible. And their trials have shown what works, and importantly, what doesn’t, in boosting attainment. More recent work has expanded into the early years, post-16 education and essential life skills.

In her remarks at the anniversary event, the education secretary Justine Greening called for research to be embedded in ‘opportunity areas’ – the cold spots that will receive £60m extra government funding. She highlighted how important evidence-based programmes are for improving outcomes for the most disadvantaged.

The Secretary of State was right to highlight the continuing challenge we face in narrowing the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their classmates. A new research brief, Class Differences: Ethnicity and Disadvantage, from the Sutton Trust today lays bare not only its extent, but the startling differences in the size of the gap between different ethnic communities in England.

The fact that Indian, Bangladeshi and Chinese pupils from poor homes are performing better than the national average is in itself a great achievement.

This reflects a strong cultural appreciation of education from which we can all learn. But it is worrying that there is such a disparity in the achievement of different ethnic groups at GCSE and particularly concerning that white working class boys and girls continue to perform so poorly.

Instilling that same will to learn that we see in many ethnic minority groups in white working class communities should be a part of the solution to the low attainment of many boys and girls. We need a more concerted effort with white working class boys, in particular.

The differentials may also reflect improvements in urban schools – to which research has shown that ethnic minority children have also contributed – which have been faster than in rural and coastal areas over the past decade. Some communities also benefited from targeted funds, such as the Ethnic Minority Achievement Grant as well as voluntary programmes.

Whatever the reasons, one thing is clear: we need a more concerted effort to narrow the gap for those pupils who continue to fall behind badly despite six years of the pupil premium. It isn’t just white working class pupils; despite improvements, black Caribbean youngsters still face a double digit attainment gap too. But the size of the disadvantaged white British community is such that we need a concerted effort to improve their results and they are to catch up with their better off peers.

The EEF is part of that solution. We now know more about what works in improving literacy and numeracy, deploying teaching assistants, engaging with students as well as some of the elements of school life – such as a regular breakfast or a focused school trip – that can be used to support learning in the classroom. But we need more schools to use the evidence in ways that make sense to their pupils, including targeted programmes for disadvantaged pupils at risk of falling behind, and doing so as early as possible in a child’s life.

Ofsted has also become much sharper in calling out schools that are not doing enough to narrow the attainment gap, while improving standards for all. But we need the government to consider incentives to encourage more highly-qualified teachers to teach in challenging schools. We have also argued that the government should support incentives through the pupil premium for schools that do the most to narrow the attainment gap.

The Sutton Trust has previously shown that enrichment is linked to better GCSE performance for working class pupils, and Government and schools should create more opportunities for disadvantaged ethnic groups to supplement core lessons, including through enrichment vouchers. And as the most able disadvantaged pupils are far more likely than others to fall behind during secondary schools, the government should introduce a dedicated fund to support highly able pupils, particularly those from less advantaged backgrounds who fall behind at school. These are all things that could be trialled in the Opportunity Areas announced recently by Justine Greening.

It is not all bad news. There is evidence that the gap has been narrowing in primary schools and this could lead to improvements in secondary school, where some measures suggest there has been some improvement. But if we are serious about narrowing those still wide gaps, we need to look at what has worked in some of our communities and redouble our efforts to address the huge inequalities that continue to blight our education system.

Sir Peter Lampl chairs both the Sutton Trust and the EEF.