Education Researchers

The psychological effects of the attainment gap

By Dylan Davies

27 Sept 2022

Students in a classroom learning.

What is the attainment gap?

In order to keep up with the rising demands of secondary education, learners need to be adding 3,000 new words to their vocabulary every year (Beck, McKeown & Kucan, 2002; Nagy, 1980 & 1986). However, learners from wealthier backgrounds tend to have a more extensive vocabulary than those from less affluent backgrounds. This has a knock-on effect on their attainment, not just in English, but in every subject: this is the attainment gap.

There are multiple complex reasons for this trend:

  • Less affluent households have less time to communicate with their children than households with more money.
  • Stress due to financial insecurity or low paying work.
  • Parents or guardians have less education themselves due to the barriers that a limited vocabulary posed to their own learning when they were in school.

If the attainment gap is not actively challenged, it continues to grow throughout learners’ academic lives and into adulthood. A language gap at the age of four has an impact on learners’ outcomes at age 18.

The British Psychological Society found that by the time learners reach GCSE age, the language gap between children from free school meal families and children from non-free school meal families was 18 months. If this is reflected in their exam results, this forms a tangible gap between learners based on their social class. This gap lasts a lifetime, having an impact on their further education, employment options and financial security. Inevitably, this affects the attainment of their children; without explicit intervention, this gap continues through the generations.

Traditionally, in literacy, the attainment gap is attributed to a shortage of words. On average, households from more affluent backgrounds spoke more words, and more complex words, to their children than households from less affluent backgrounds. While research is divided on how large this word gap is, with some claiming the difference is a few thousand words and others determining the gap to be 30 million words wide, researchers agree that this gap is very real, and that it forms from a young age.

Hearing more complex words in early years prepares learners for reading when they begin school. This head start leads to these learners finding reading accessible and enjoyable, which helps them form a reading habit that goes on to benefit them throughout their life. On the other hand, learners who grew up around less complex words may struggle more when they begin to read, leading them to become frustrated and not continue to read for pleasure. This only widens the attainment gap between these learners.

With the average GCSE paper having a reading age of 16 years and 3 months, it is those learners who began to love reading at a young age, and who obtain ambitious vocabulary through self-motivated reading, that get the headstart when answering these papers. Learners who do not understand the vocabulary needed to access their GCSE papers may lose marks for content they are capable of answering but which contains a word they don’t understand. These learners are statistically more likely to come from less affluent backgrounds. In this way, a word gap in literacy has a knock-on effect for every subject in the curriculum, widening the attainment gap even further.

In addition to this, the British Psychological Society did further research around factors that influence the attainment gap:

  • 18-month attainment gap by the time learners reach GCSE age
    • Not only does this delay have an impact on learners’ exam results, but the feeling of being “behind” others impacts learners’ self-motivation, confidence and aspirations - learners begin to feel that they cannot achieve as much as classmates from wealthier backgrounds.
  • Negative stereotypes
    • Learners from marginalised backgrounds, such as a lower social class, worry that their negative behaviour reflects not only on themselves but on “people like them” - in this way, they take on the burden of representing their social community, increasing their anxiety and reducing performance.
  • Mental health concerns
    • The feeling of being “behind” and having to work much harder to achieve the same result leads to mental health issues such as chronic stress and depression. This is only worsened by the feeling of uncertainty when it comes to future housing and financial security.
  • Medical discrimination
    • Working class learners are more likely to experience judgement when seeking medical help, leading to delays that cause extended absences from education.
  • Self-fulfilling prophecy
    • Learners who detect that they are at a disadvantage they have no control over can quickly become disengaged, reducing performance and increasing distractions. This gap widens as learners disengage, which only corroborates their belief - this spiral continues into adulthood, leading to lower self-worth.

These factors continue to affirm one another; a widening attainment gap leads to anxiety and feelings of hopelessness, which in turn contribute to a larger attainment gap. Breaking the cycle requires explicit, consistent action.

The growth of the attainment gap when learners become adults

The attainment gap, if not tackled, goes on to influence learners’ GCSE and A-level results. Learners who lack the ability to access their GCSE papers, whether that’s due to low levels of vocabulary or any of the other factors that contribute to the attainment gap, are less likely to pursue higher education. This can lead to unfulfilling employment, lower job security, lower wages and insecure housing.

Even for learners from less affluent backgrounds who go on to higher education, many report feelings of falling behind their cohort. For example, Dr Suriyah Bi, founder of the Equality Act Review, stated that, despite earning herself a place at Oxford University, she felt out of place and “didn’t know how to write an essay”. Despite having the same level of skill and intelligence as other learners to earn her place at Oxford University, she lacked some niche skills that learners from more affluent backgrounds seemed to have acquired by chance, leading to a feeling of imposter syndrome. This demonstrates that many of the skills necessary for learners to flourish in higher education come incidentally to learners from more affluent backgrounds - to level the playing field, all learners must be taught these skills explicitly.

As well as this, many aspects of life beyond the school gates rely on a rich vocabulary knowledge. Whether it’s writing a CV, attending a job interview, filling out an official form, advocating for yourself when seeking healthcare, or even watching the news, they all require a broad vocabulary. Learners from more affluent backgrounds, and who tend to have a wider vocabulary due to the word gap, have an advantage in these areas, leading to them having better paid jobs, more home security, better physical and mental health and a rich understanding of the world, benefits not afforded to learners from less affluent backgrounds due to the attainment gap.

This attainment gap is not a social phenomenon that goes unseen. For those at a disadvantage, the difference between those from a more affluent background and those from a lower socioeconomic background is obvious, leading to frustration and mental health problems - however, this gap may not feel obvious to those at an advantage, leading to tension on both sides of the spectrum.

Education has the power to break the cycle. Despite the attainment gap being visible from the age of four, education has the power to close this gap through explicit, targeted intervention: literacy instruction. As literacy is the language of learning, explicit literacy instruction has the potential to unlock the curriculum for every learner, allowing them to achieve their full potential.

What does the British Psychological Society’s campaign mean for the attainment gap?

The British Psychological Society’s acknowledgement of the effects of the attainment gap has the potential to shift the way we allocate pupil premium funding. Not only are we acknowledging that there is a disparity between learners of different social classes, but we are also acknowledging that the impact of this disparity affects behaviour, mental and physical health, financial security and housing security. What is especially important, also, is that this campaign acknowledges that closing the attainment gap is not as simple as earning learners high GCSE grades without a true mastery of the concepts; these learners then go on to experience disadvantage in higher education - the attainment gap continues.

The British Psychological Society’s campaign findings reaffirm that the attainment gap requires explicit, structured, consistent intervention from the first day learners enter the school. This involves pursuing a mastery of ambitious Tier 2 and Tier 3 vocabulary, enriching learners in a broad range of cultural capital they may not experience organically, and ensuring that learners do not internalise the idea that they are “less than” or “not capable”. The younger the attainment gap can be thwarted, the better for learners’ long-term progress, as they do not experience the detrimental effects of feeling at a disadvantage compared to other learners.

How Bedrock helps to close the attainment gap through literacy improvement

One of the most detrimental effects of the attainment gap is that once it manifests, it becomes more and more difficult to counter. For example, a learner who has a limited vocabulary at the age of four is less likely to read. By the age of 11, this learner is even further behind their peers, and books that are age-appropriate in content contain vocabulary that is too complicated.

That’s why Bedrock teaches Tier 2 vocabulary through accessible language. Bedrock’s Blocks, from 3 to 12, are age-appropriate - this way, learners can become engaged in Bedrock’s bespoke fiction and nonfiction texts without any barriers to new vocabulary. New Tier 2 vocabulary is taught through contextual images, engaging word activities and human narration, ensuring that high-level language is accessible for every learner.

As well as teaching vocabulary, Bedrock’s core curriculum provides explicit grammar instruction. Bedrock Grammar uses teaching videos, gamified language activities and interactive tasks to teach grammar explicitly. Learners from less affluent backgrounds may feel unable to access the “secrets” of how to use language, such as the accurate use of commas or apostrophes, but Bedrock Grammar’s explicit grammar instruction unlocks the tools learners need to communicate effectively. Combined with a rich knowledge of Tier 2 vocabulary, learners progress through their education with the key to access future learning, no matter their background.

In addition to this, Bedrock’s GCSE English content contains activities which scaffold essay responses. For students who have not incidentally learned the skills of essay writing, this GCSE curriculum provides the framework they need to succeed, as well as taking learners through the definitions of relevant GCSE keywords. When each of these literacy curricula are combined and taught consistently, learners have the ability to access and master their GCSE papers, boosting their progress and closing the attainment gap - and, thanks to edtech like Bedrock, these literacy skills can be taught consistently without any added work in the classroom.

Bedrock’s curricula are applicable to all learners, no matter their wealth or background. This means that, with every learner in a classroom completing Bedrock, learners who are falling behind do not feel singled out or “worse than”, but instead feel on the same level as others. Thanks to Bedrock’s Block system, learners at different literacy levels are able to complete lessons at the same time, so all learners can participate in improving literacy and closing the language gap.

If you’re looking for effective ways to use Pupil Premium funding and close the attainment gap, learn more about Bedrock or start your free trial. For more ideas on how you can best allocate your PP funding, read more.

Improve literacy with Bedrock Learning

Explicit literacy instruction that closes attainment gaps