Closing the gap? No, that’s just leaving some behind.


I’ve written several times about my issues with focusing on groups of students in schools in terms of intervention and raising attainment. This is of particular concern when talking about how we ‘teach’. I don’t have an issue with funding extra equipment or trips (treating a child as an individual case). I do have an issue where people are somehow claiming that there are specific pedagogical strategies that a teacher can use in their classroom or in their planning or marking that can somehow resolve an underachieving student’s issue, due to the group they’re in, for example they are Pupil Premium,

I do understand why colleagues do it. The data shows that Pupil Premium students are not doing as well so it seems logical to focus on them as a group. However some of the groupings and the following interventions are highly questionable. Marking PP students books first is nonsense. Planning lessons to suit boy’s learning is bizarre. Checking on ‘more able’ students first in class is odd. However good our intentions are these interventions not only are dubious in their nature but also fail to ‘close the gap’

The ‘gap’

The issue is that:

Classroom strategies shown to be effective for one ethnic or socio-economic group tend also to be effective for others.”

You could argue that if you do something that ‘works’ for all children, it will sustain the gap. This is why leaders and teachers try to do something different for those with a gap.

Each time you do something for an underachieving/PP child if you don’t do it for a higher achieving/PP child, then obviously that will close a gap. If I teach the first child how to solve quadratic equations and don’t teach the other, then obviously that will create a gap with quadratics but overall might close a gap in maths. But that is no way to behave. However teachers are still promoting teaching strategies that essentially do the above; put one child at a disadvantage in the hope that the gap will close.

Key stage 4 ready 

All students need to be in the same place to start with to ensure that there is no gap at key stage 4. At secondary it could be argued that key stage 3 is about making students key stage 4 ‘ready’. I don’t mean doing GCSE at key stage 3 (which sadly some colleagues seem to be doing). I mean getting them to the stage where their literacy, knowledge, understanding and subject specific skills are to a standard which means they can access key stage 4 with the best possible chance of excelling.

None of this should be decided by any category or group a student may be in; it should be decided on a student by student basis.

The ethics

One of the biggest issues I have with some of these interventions is the ethical issue of doing something for one child and either not for another or to the detriment of another. For example, marking PP student books first. If you believe that the books you mark first are marked best (which is dubious in itself and not backed by any evidence I’m aware of) and you put particular books at the top of the pile you are knowingly saying that those that the bottom are not as valuable.

You cannot morally justify this kind of behaviour. Either you need to question the marking itself (if it is such a biased process) or give every student the same marking treatment.

It seems some colleagues are trying to close the gap by limiting some and helping others. You cannot justify one child making progress but stopping another having a chance to make progress.

Teachers are still being asked by school leaders to identify what they are doing for the groups of students in their classes, ignoring the rest of the students that haven’t got the label. This practice is highly questionable. Imagine if it was shared with non-group students/parents and there were gaps next to their names.

What’s happening isn’t working

At the current rate of progress it would take a full 50 years to reach an equitable education system where disadvantaged pupils did not fall behind their peers during formal education to age 16.

Despite all the money and initiatives by the government and schools and teachers coming up with new ideas, overall things aren’t getting better. Yet I still see people sharing lists of ideas on ‘closing the gap’. Teachers asking for interventions that make a difference. It’s almost like they want a tick list of things they can say they are doing without any real thought about the reality of each thing making a difference; as long as it’s in the website for Ofsted to see, we’re doing what we need to.

What gets results?

If I am about to sit my Geography GCSE, I have free school meals and the data says that if I get a 4* then I’ve underachieved, but if I get a 7 I’ve made exceptional progress surely there’s one thing I need to get the latter result. I need to know everything that I could be tested on and know how to answer all the different questions. That is the only thing that gets me a 7.

A teacher and school’s responsibility is to teach students to get the best possible grade, for most in mainstream schooling thats a 9. There may be some barriers to this. One of them is not that they cannot afford a lunch. Getting a free lunch does not mean I will get a 4. Not knowing what to do in the exam will get me a 4.

So, it seems obvious how to close the gap; get every student to the position where they know, and can do, everything needed.

Differentiation by task

I still see this awful practice being shared on social media. Teachers are still being told by leaders that differentiation means giving different levelled tasks to different students. Which sheet would I be given? If I have been underachieving then you might give me the level 4/5 task. It might seem appropriate as I’m clearly struggling. But giving me something where I can’t possibly reach higher levels is one of biggest educational errors a teacher can commit. It is the pinnacle of low expectations and logically means I cannot achieve higher than a 5. Why do people still think this is a good idea?

Give all students a level 9 task. Structure it and support them, whether they are currently a 1 or 4 or 7.

Choosing homework tasks is another example of this. I’ve seen menu style homework that allows students to choose what they complete. Giving the easy option is a classic way for the gap to start to widen. Give everyone the same homework and expect them to attempt it  to the best of their ability, with support if necessary. Allowing a child to access a more ‘fun’ or easier task won’t get them a 9.

Expectations; a level playing field?

All schools can do for certain, happens within the school day and school hours. If we work in trying to make all opportunities for students out them in an equal playing field then they might have some chance of succeeding. This doesn’t mean treating them the same. If a student cannot read exam questions to get a 9, they need extra support with their reading. That then means the 9 becomes available to them. If they don’t have a pen to write with, we need to ensure they have a pen. They can then write their grade 9 answers.

Expectations should be the same for all. Creating a homework club at lunch/after school gives all students the opportunity to complete their work. Not expecting homework in from some students or not doing anything about failed submissions, is where the gap starts to widen.

Who is it working for?

There has been research on what schools are doing and ‘what works’. It mostly indicates that alongside attendance the biggest factors that make a difference are high quality teaching and learning e.g feedback, 1-2-1 work. But what is it that these effective teachers do with feedback? Who does the 1-2-1? How? What works?


An interesting study for research would be analyse those teachers for whom there is no gap in their class results. What is it that they have done for 2/3/5 years that is making a difference? It’s great teachers that make the difference so sharing lists of how to close the gap seems a waste of time unless it focuses on creating equality of opportunity so that students can access the great teaching.

Is it too late at secondary?


This research as tweeted by Dylan above seems to suggest that the quality of teaching earlier on can significantly affect their achievement at GCSE. If this is the case, shouldn’t most money got into primary schools? Again, the problem remains, if this is true for all students and there is a gap, the gap will remain (unless the definition of outstanding teaching means there are no gaps).

The Sutton Trust sum it up perfectly:

In other words, for poor pupils the difference between a good teacher and a bad teacher is a whole year’s learning.

And I’m willing to bet those teachers don’t mark PP student books first, give optional homework or differentiated GCSE worksheets.




Further reading

Effective classroom strategies for closing the gap in educational achievement for children and young people living in poverty, including white working-class boys

* the way I’m using numbers and data in this post is generalised. It’s more complex but for the sake of argument I’ve kept it simple.