Bridging the Attainment Gap in the UK Education System

Feb 11, 2022
Bridging the Attainment Gap in the UK Education System

When you become a parent, you hope that your children are able to achieve everything they can and want to, and the last thing you want is for the challenges you have encountered personally to affect them or their education. 

Unfortunately, for many families in the UK it is unavoidable. Young people from disadvantaged backgrounds and low-income families are likely to experience several hardships in their education, leaving them less likely to continue into further education beyond the age of 18 and widening the attainment gap further. 

In later life, it is often found that those from disadvantaged backgrounds who have struggled to keep up in school will go on to have lower than average earnings, poorer health, and greater chances of becoming involved in crime than their more affluent peers. This hinders their life chances and opportunities for social mobility.

A whole host of bodies from governments and schools to teachers and parents from all over the UK have been looking at ways in which we can work together to help to close the education attainment gap. 

Frustratingly, any progress that was made in the years up to 2020 has been halted, and since the pandemic it has become increasingly difficult to maintain any progress. Many studies have found that school closures have widened the gap even further resulting in even more deprived schools across the UK. 

What is the attainment gap in education?

The education attainment gap in the UK is where the clear divide in society has an obvious impact on learning between pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds and their more affluent peers. 

As you can imagine, progress for all students at school is regularly monitored, providing copious amounts of data to analyse and draw valid conclusions regarding impacts of socioeconomic factors.

Attainment gaps are evident in the early years and grow throughout schooling. Reports from the Education Policy Institute (EPI) estimated that by the end of secondary school, pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds in England were on average 19 months behind their peers.

Socioeconomic status impacts early education, with only half of primary school students from disadvantaged backgrounds meeting the expected grades and progression in reading, writing and basic numeracy at their KS2 SATs.

Furthermore, a government report found that, on average, only 49.9% of pupils in England leave school having achieved a grade 5 or above in both their English and Maths GCSEs. Shockingly, this drops to just 27.8% of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds (eligible for Free School Meals). 

It is interesting to note that we see this trend apply across all ethnicities, with White children showing the largest disparity between FSM pupils and their non-FSM peers:

percentage of pupils getting a grade 5 or above in English and Maths GCSE - chart

It is widely agreed that disadvantaged students require additional support to catch up with their peers, now more than ever before, no thanks to the pandemic.

How is the attainment gap measured?

Measuring the attainment gap requires measuring students’ grades and progression - this includes looking at and monitoring the level of qualifications achieved by each individual pupil, and since all school work in the UK is measured by a grading system, the process is fairly straightforward…

Students at schools in England are assessed against the national standard several times throughout compulsory education:

  • In Reception (children aged 4-5) – assessments against the Early Years Foundation Stage Profile that tracks development in the early years
  • In year 2 (children aged 6-7) – assessments in reading, writing and mathematics at the end of Key Stage 1
  • In year 6 (children aged 10-11) – assessments in reading, writing and mathematics at the end of Key Stage 2
  • In year 11 (children aged 15-16) – examinations in GCSEs and equivalent qualifications marking the end of Key Stage 4

Once the initial data has been collected, information regarding pupils' gender, age and socioeconomic background will be taken into consideration, helping the data collector to categorise pupils who are from the same socioeconomic background with similar grades and progression, as well as to identify any differences in progression based on other demographics. 

The measures of attainment gaps at both primary and secondary have been based upon comparing the amount of pupils in each group achieving the generally expected standard. The standard expected level is a level 4 in reading, writing and maths at the end of Key Stage 2, and 5 good passes at GCSE level, including English and Maths.

Using all of the data collected up to this point, the ‘Disadvantaged Pupils Attainment Gap Index’ is then calculated by ordering all pupils’ grades and point scores, and deriving an average rank for all disadvantaged pupils and an average rank for their counterparts. The difference between the two provides the basis for the index.

Over the last 10 years, the gap has narrowed by 10%, from a score of 4.07 to 3.66. Whilst seemingly small, we’re going in the right direction, however, there has been criticism over this slow progress.

the disadvantaged attainment gap index for England 2010 - 2022 - chart

How does attainment differ in different school settings? 

A school's location and pupil capacity will affect their qualification for funding, and differing levels of funding for schools means that pupils from deprived areas may have a poorer education experience. 

Many schools in poorer areas do not have the funding to provide sufficient resources that students require for enhanced learning, and they may have less experienced teachers dealing with many troubled students. Students attending a deprived school are often likely to find it difficult to succeed with their education. 

Another important factor when considering attainment within different schools is the class size and teachers’ choices on how to lead classes - all of which have an impact on learning. 

Having larger classes reduces the teachers ability to focus their attention and efforts on individual students, it also makes it more difficult to monitor behaviour and progress - limiting their feedback to students and parents. 

Other factors contributing to the attainment gap

Aside from internal school factors, external factors in homelife and society can have a big impact on children and young people’s academic achievements. These problems can sometimes be the biggest barriers to learning, these include issues with housing, nutrition, transport, and clothing - all of which can affect access to education, impacting a student’s capacity to learn. 


It is commonly known that children growing up in poorer families are more likely to emerge from school with substantially lower levels of educational attainment than their more affluent peers. 

Sadly, in today’s world, educational qualifications are such a strong determinant of later-life income and opportunities, with such broad attainment gaps creating a major contributing factor to patterns of bad behaviour and poor work ethic. 

SEND (Special Educational Needs and/or Disabilities) Students

SEND students have spent many years struggling to keep up with the national curriculum due to the ways in which schools structured lessons in a one-size-fits-all approach. 

However over recent years the SEND code of practice has been drawn out across the country, being regularly updated to ensure authorities and schools follow the guidelines for efficient teaching to SEND students to help close the attainment gap.

SEND students often struggle to reach academic standards, this can be down to a number of factors;

1. Disruptive behaviour in school classrooms

2. Difficulty focusing and concentrating

3. Lack of written work

Mental health issues

Mental health issues affect one in six school aged children, including depression and anxiety. These often occur as a direct response to something happening in their lives that is stressful or traumatic. 

Research has found that those who experience mental health difficulties are more likely to have lower attainment when it comes to educational outcomes, largely due to being persistently absent from school. 

Parents with mental health or disabling physical health conditions

Parents who struggle with mental health problems are generally able to give their children safe and loving care without their children being negatively affected in any way. 

However, sometimes their situations become more difficult and require additional support from family members or healthcare professionals to look after their children.

Research has shown that if a parent suffers mental health problems during the first few years of their children’s life it can have a detrimental impact on the child’s intellectual, emotional, social and psychological development.

Student working hard in after school learning cubs class

How are governments helping to close the attainment gap?

There are a number of initiatives to close the attainment gap in UK schools:

Pupil Premium Funding

Commonly referred to as PP, this is funding from the government to improve education outcomes for disadvantaged pupils in schools in England. With evidence showing that disadvantaged children face additional challenges in reaching their potential at school, this funding will help them access further support to help them perform as well as other pupils.

National Tutoring Programme

The NTP supports disadvantaged and vulnerable pupils from year 1 to 11 to help them to catch up on missed education due to COVID-19. The NTP has National Partnerships with tuition providers who deliver packages of support to schools across the country. 

School-led tutoring

A branch of the NTP, this funding provides schools with 60% of tuition costs (previously, 75%) to pay for external providers or existing staff to deliver small-group tuition sessions tailored to disadvantaged students’ needs. 

Free school meals

In England, Free School Meals (FSM) are a statutory benefit, they are available to school age children from families who receive other qualifying benefits and who have been through the relevant application process.

Education recovery support package in response to the COVID-19 pandemic:

This will be supported with a new £700 million package, focusing on an expansion of one-to-one and small group tutoring programmes, as well as supporting the development of disadvantaged children in early years settings, and summer provision for those pupils who need it the most.

How can schools help to close the attainment gap?

Closing the attainment gap between pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds and their peers is definitely a high priority for schools all over the UK. They have been working tirelessly to try to close, or at least reduce, the attainment gap between their students. 

Learning Cubs tutor with students in class

Targeted funding, and accountability from a strict Ofsted framework are two ways in which schools are working towards bridging the gap, but the role of system leaders is extremely important for other attempts to be successful. 

Here are just some of the other ways in which schools have successfully began to reduce the learning gap:

  • Prioritise quality of teaching methods and strategies.
  • Understand that attendance, behaviour and emotional support are necessary but not sufficient for academic success. 
  • Make every effort to understand every pupil as an individual and tailor their programmes accordingly. 
  • Link teaching and learning interventions to classroom work, monitor attainment and intervene quickly to address each student's learning needs. 
  • Ensure all tutors have the necessary training and expertise to deliver interventions, provide feedback and monitor progress.
  • Use government funding to supply and run extra classes to support disadvantaged students.
  • Monitor the students’ progress, providing rewards for positive attitudes, celebrating any achievements of the students - this will encourage themselves and others to continue working hard
  • Bespoke learning programmes focusing on each students needs, working with them individually to ensure maximum success

How after school provision helps to bridge the attainment gap

Numerous research studies have found that after-school clubs and sports clubs can improve the academic performance and social skills of disadvantaged primary school pupils, thus helping to bridge the attainment gap.

Whilst after school provision and extracurricular activities may not be the complete solution to closing the attainment gap, it is certainly a good starting point. The numerous government funding schemes over the last 2 years have been a huge help for schools and institutions to put on extra after school classes or clubs. 

In particular the Pupil Premium scheme has enabled schools to offer a variety of wide-ranging support, including out-of-school clubs, to the most disadvantaged pupils, working to close the attainment gap at both primary and secondary level.

work desk at learning cubs after school class

What steps can classroom teachers and tutors take to encourage the closing of the attainment gap?

Here are 4 ways education professionals can help close the attainment gap:

1. Acknowledge the attainment gap as a complex problem 

In order to begin to bridge the educational attainment gap, quality-first and outstanding teaching on the basis of vulnerable children's individual needs, and a personalised strategy for each student is absolutely crucial. 

2. Identify and understand the reasons for attainment issues 

Teaching staff and classroom assistants must undergo training for professional development in order to have the correct skills to deal with pupil attainment. They must understand the root cause of each individual student's reason for being a deprived student. On the basis of their conversations with and understanding of their students it is important for teachers to intervene in a way that suits each student. 

Schools can gather and use this data to identify trends in disadvantaged pupils' performance and use this information to create strategies going forward. It is important that schools remember that this will not be a ‘one size fits all’ approach, with each student varying in emotional and educational capabilities this must all be taken into consideration. 

3. Use funding effectively

It is so important that the funding that is provided for schools and tuition partners is distributed in the appropriate manner. This will differ across schools and different areas of the UK based on students attainment levels and requirements, which is why it is crucial that there is regular assessment of where the funding is distributed and how effective the funding is on closing the attainment gap.

4. Keeping high expectations for all students 

Many deprived and disadvantaged students will have low self-esteem and won’t consider themselves as capable individuals. It is the schools and tuition partners responsibility to ensure that all students understand what is expected of them in both an academic and behavioural sense. This keeps them motivated and helps them to work towards an end goal. 

Learning Cubs commitment to bridging the attainment gap

Our team at Learning Cubs are a great example of a group of people working hard to make the lives of the next generation better and full of opportunities. 

Our mission is to bring bespoke academic support to disadvantaged students, to bridge the learning gap. We are committed to doing this through working one to one, or in small groups, tailoring our support to each student. We’ve seen transformations in our students' learning, enabling young people to achieve phenomenal results.

If you are looking to help boost your children's academic abilities, extra academic lessons are proven to enhance academic abilities and other soft skills, we are here to provide these for you. 

Learning Cubs have several learning centres with spaces available at weekends and throughout school holidays. Check if you are eligible for a free place, or heavily subsidised fees, then book your child’s assessment to get started!

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