Amy Mitchell, Chief Impact Officer at Teach First, focuses on what can be done by policymakers to close the attainment gap.

Education has immense power to transform a pupil’s life. But opportunity is not spread equally across the country.

In 2023, just over 25% of disadvantaged pupils achieved grades of 5 or above in their English and Maths GCSEs – less than half of that achieved by their wealthier peers. Moreover, children in receipt of Free School Meals are currently twice as likely to be not in education, employment or training at the age of 18-24.

This General Election presents a unique opportunity for every political party to set out their vision for an education system which closes the attainment gap and helps every child fulfil their potential.

Ending educational inequality is at the heart of our mission at Teach First. Since we were established over twenty years ago, we have trained more than 17,000 teachers and leaders, supported over two million pupils, and now work with over 1,000 schools across the country serving disadvantaged communities. Alongside strong sector leadership, we passionately believe that high-quality teaching is the most effective lever to transform education outcomes for young people, giving them the knowledge, skills and confidence to take advantage of very opportunity that life has to offer.

Great teachers are integral change makers and role models for many of their students, inspiring them to look beyond their circumstances and realise their own potential for success. However, we are facing a long-term crisis in recruiting and retaining the teachers we need. According to the latest Department for Education data, the teaching workforce only grew by 259 full-time equivalent teachers in the year to November 2023, compared to a 2,844 rise the year before. Similarly, a 2022 report by the NFER found that in the academic year to February 2023, teacher vacancies were 93% higher than before the Covid pandemic.

The shortage of teachers, particularly across STEM subjects, is having a detrimental impact on children’s learning and life chances. As schools in the most disadvantaged areas increasingly struggle to fill teacher vacancies, the attainment gap will continue to widen, causing long-term damage to the life chances of our young people.

But this is not irreversible. If we recruit and retain enough excellent teachers, the attainment gap can be narrowed in every classroom across the UK. We’re proud of the fact that NFER research published last year found pupils taught by Teach First teachers get better GCSE outcomes and are more likely to attend top universities. And research has also shown that being taught by a high-quality teacher can add almost half a GCSE grade per subject to each pupil’s results, improving their overall attainment.

That said, ending educational inequality does not just stop at the staffroom. We know that there are additional challenges facing our education system. Rising inflation, school budget pressures, and an increased workload for teachers, in part caused by pressures on families outside the school gates, have significantly reduced the workforce’s recruitment and retention level. These pressures are felt most acutely in schools serving the poorest communities.

Schools are having to step in to take on more and more responsibilities beyond teaching. Our latest research shows that 84% of teachers spent more time helping pupils with mental health issues over the past academic year, with 58% spending more time on social care issues and 52% giving increased attention to family or financial hardship. Moreover, a third (36%) of teachers believe their school will reduce the number of teaching staff over the next academic year to help reduce spending.

If we are serious about eliminating the attainment gap and ensuring every child goes on to have the successful career they choose to, then we must ensure that every school can recruit and retain the best and brightest teachers.

So what is the solution?

Our recent report, Ending Educational Inequality, sets out three key recommendations to make this ambition a reality:

Develop and implement an ambitious Teacher Recruitment and Retention strategy that incentivises the next generation to become teachers and work where they are needed. Key to this will be modernising the workforce by promoting a flexible working culture, reducing the cost of training to teach by increasing trainee salaries and diversifying routes to entry such as Teacher Degree Apprenticeships.

Target funding towards schools serving disadvantaged communities via the Pupil Premium. The funding advantage for schools serving the most deprived communities fell be 10% between 2010 and 2021. Reversing this will be vital for schools to be able to deliver evidence-based interventions that we know close the attainment gap and improve destination outcomes for young people.

Implement a cross-departmental strategy that eradicates child poverty and improves public services for young people. Vital children’s services such as CAMHS and SEND require additional support so that teachers can focus on teaching, and wider support services can be provided by the expert practitioners.

By making the necessary interventions and investments in our schools and teachers, the next government has the power to break the cycle of inequality and close the attainment gap once and for all.

These changes have the potential to transform millions of young lives. It’s not an easy fix. But we know that it works. We urge all political parties to invest in our nation’s children – to give those facing the biggest barriers the opportunities they deserve and empower them with the tools they need to pursue the future they desire. It is this investment that will create a future of choice.

The opinions of guest authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Sutton Trust.

Media enquiries

If you're a journalist with a question about our work, get in touch with Sam or Rocky on the number below. The number is also monitored out of hours.

E: [email protected] T: 0204 536 4642

Keep up to date with the latest news