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Pupil Premium | Literacy

The attainment gap: what is it and how do we close it?

By Dylan Davies

16 Jan 2023

A student putting their hand up in a classroom.

Over 90% of teachers believe that literacy plays a crucial role in closing the attainment gap - but what is the attainment gap? And what role do teachers play in closing it?

Research suggests that by age three, a gap is forming between children from different sociological backgrounds. Learners from disadvantaged backgrounds are falling behind their peers in both cognitive development and emotional well-being.

This gap widens with the increasing challenges of education; Beck, McKeown and Kucan (2002) found that learners must add over 3,000 new words to their vocabularies each year to keep up with the challenge of complex academic texts. From early primary school to the end of secondary school, the attainment gap widens by an average of 15 months - the increasingly comprehensive vocabulary bank learners need in order to reach their academic potential is not being learned.

By the time learners reach secondary school, there is a clear and defined attainment gap. In primary school, only half of all learners from disadvantaged backgrounds achieve their expected grades in reading, writing and maths. In secondary school, the proportion of learners from disadvantaged backgrounds achieving a Grade 5 in English and Maths GCSE drops to 25%. Without intervention, learners from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to leave school with fewer qualifications, struggle to find long-term employment, and experience mental health difficulties.

To give every learner an equal chance for success beyond the school gates, every school must be conscientious about its efforts to close the attainment gap - but before this happens, it’s crucial to understand the factors that contribute to the widening attainment gap.

One of the fundamental factors influencing the attainment gap is the socioeconomic background of each child.

The impacts of deprivation on a learner can be felt everywhere: unstable housing situations can lead to a learner being distracted in the classroom, while a poor-quality breakfast can worsen a child’s concentration. Learners without reliable transport at home may struggle to attend school - in some cases, an inability to afford the correct uniform can withhold a learner from classroom education. Even small factors such as having the correct school equipment can create a divide between learners of different backgrounds.

The attainment gap runs even deeper than this. The parents of learners from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to have come from disadvantaged backgrounds themselves - this generally results in lower educational attainment, insecurity in work and housing, and a lack of high-level vocabulary.

The link between a high level of vocabulary and household affluence is well-founded. On average, more affluent households speak more words, and more complex words, to their children than households with less wealth. Some cite this word gap as being a few thousand words, while others determine this gap to be 30 million words wide!

Despite this disagreement, the consensus is this: the word gap is very real, forms at a young age, and has a significant influence on a learner’s academic success.

While more affluent backgrounds are likely to use more complex vocabulary compared to other households, this is not always the case. Research by Schady (2011) found that the vocabulary level of a parental figure is more indicative of a child’s cognitive development than the household’s wealth.

Lower education levels and vocabulary knowledge in parents results in a lower level of vocabulary used in day-to-day conversation - without intervention, the attainment gap unintentionally perpetuates itself across generations. However, Schady’s research shines a beam of hope - with a child’s vocabulary exposure being a defining factor in academic success, funding to close the attainment gap may be most efficiently spent on vocabulary improvement initiatives.

Coined by Pierre Bourdieu in the 1970s, cultural capital refers to the “capital” a person earns for themselves through lived experiences - their “familiarity with the legitimate culture within a society”. While subtle and challenging to track, Bourdieu referred to this as how social class is passed down and maintained. Families from advantaged backgrounds have the means to introduce their children to art, dance, theatres and museums, and have the vocabulary themselves to discuss their experiences analytically, immersing learners in the “legitimate culture” of their society.

Learners from disadvantaged backgrounds may not have been exposed to these various art forms. This means that any learning that takes place on the prerequisite knowledge of these experiences places learners with lower “cultural capital” at a disadvantage, widening the attainment gap.

Take, for example, a Maths question:

  • With two decks of cards spread out on the table face down, what is the probability that Jane will pick up a club?

Not only does this require the learner to know what a “club” is, but it also requires them to know the other suits on the cards, as well as how many cards are in a deck, as well as what a deck of cards is. Learners without this cultural exposure are held back from this question despite potentially having the skills to answer it.

However, like many factors behind the attainment gap, solving this disparity is complex and goes beyond exposing learners to different forms of culture. Even with these cultural experiences in place, learners from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to lack the vocabulary to discuss their experiences effectively and compare them critically, emphasising that closing the gap in cultural capital goes deeper than just presenting learners with these experiences; learners should be explicitly taught the vocabulary with which to discuss them.

Though linked to a learner’s financial background, the recent COVID-19 pandemic placed increased focus on the digital gap between learners. Widening attainment gaps throughout the pandemic’s period of home learning highlighted that learners from disadvantaged backgrounds were less likely to have access to a laptop and a consistent internet connection, limiting their access to progress outside of the classroom.

While digital learning can be an accessible alternative for a child where transport is a barrier to learning, reliance on technology for progress brings its own unique challenges. Ensuring every child has access to a computer for home learning relies on a school’s funding and facilities, which differ from school to school.

A school’s effectiveness at closing the attainment gap can largely rely on its funding. The factors highlighted above emphasise that there is no one solution to reducing the attainment gap - tackling smaller contributing factors, such as ensuring every learner has a healthy breakfast and reliable transport to school, can take a significant chunk out of a school’s budget.

Providing a consistent, holistic solution to the attainment gap is expensive - and it is the schools in areas with the most deprivation that may struggle with funding the most, further widening the gap.

As well as this, a lack of funding means larger class sizes and fewer members of support staff available to schools. This results in less one-to-one support for each child, less equipment, and possibly more disruption from other students in the classroom. Funding measures such as the Pupil Premium attempt to combat this with some success, but learners just above the qualifying line for this funding may fall behind as a result.

On the other hand, schools with a large proportion of learners from advantaged backgrounds may come to rely on students’ incidental learning in their teaching. While this results in a fast-paced lesson plan for gifted learners, learners without the prior knowledge they need are left behind. Ensuring every learner has access to lesson content requires explicit instruction.

Linking back to research conducted around the vocabulary gap, there is reason to believe schools may have significant success closing the language gap when funding is targeted towards closing the word gap - the Oxford Language Report for 2021-22 focuses on the strategies schools use to close the word gap, as well as the impact closing the word gap has on learners’ success overall. Strategies to target the word gap may be an effective way to intervene with the attainment gap without an extensive budget - learn more about how Bedrock’s core curriculum supports schools to close the word gap.

At the age of 4, the attainment gap is an average of 4.3 months. By the time learners finish secondary school, this gap is an astounding 19 months wide. This means that learners from disadvantaged backgrounds are significantly less likely to achieve the benchmark of “five good GCSEs” needed to achieve their goals in higher education or employment.

In 2016, only 49.8% of all learners eligible for Pupil Premium funding had a Level 2 qualification (GCSEs or an alternative) by the age of 19. Not only does this have an impact on the quality of learners’ lives, as lacking a Level 2 qualification is a significant barrier to further opportunities, but also on society as a whole - learners who are equipped with the skills to find meaningful employment contribute back to society as a whole.

Ensuring every learner has the opportunity to succeed in school is all of our responsibility.

The attainment gap has been found to cause significant difficulties for learners of disadvantaged backgrounds, not just in academia but throughout their lives.

These difficulties can include:

  • Mental health concerns
  • Medical discrimination
  • Self-fulfilling prophecy
  • Imposter syndrome
  • Low self-esteem
  • Unstable employment and housing, contributing to reduced mental well-being

Learn about the psychological disadvantages of the attainment gap in more detail here.

The effects of the attainment gap in one generation trickle into another. Supported by the research behind the word gap, parents from a less affluent background are less likely to use ambitious vocabulary with their children, limiting their exposure to Tier 2 vocabulary. As well as this, the attainment gap in a parent’s childhood impacts the security of their job and housing as an adult, which goes on to influence their child’s learning, perpetuating the attainment gap across generations.

Without targeted, intentional intervention, the attainment gap will continue to widen - however, with the right intervention, the language gap could close completely within the next fifty years.

Introduced in 2011, the Pupil Premium grant is funding allocated specifically for levelling the playing field between learners of different socioeconomic backgrounds. Learners eligible for free school meals, or learners who were once eligible in the last six years, receive additional funding to close the attainment gap. This funding also extends to learners in the care of the local authority.

Each year, primary learners eligible for the Pupil Premium receive £1385 - this is reduced to £985 for secondary students. This funding can then be utilised by schools to support disadvantaged learners and create a comprehensive strategy aimed at closing the attainment gap.

Schools in the UK have the freedom to spend their Pupil Premium grant as they see fit. However, the majority use diagnostic assessments to determine the areas where additional funding would be most beneficial for learners from disadvantaged backgrounds, selecting evidence-based interventions based on their findings.

Strategies for closing the attainment gap using Pupil Premium funding can include:

Learn more about how Pupil Premium funding can be used to support literacy.

Research into the word gap suggests that the size of a learner’s vocabulary throughout their education has a significant impact on their academic achievement - some research suggests the link between vocabulary acquisition and attainment is stronger than that of a learner’s socioeconomic background, though vocabulary acquisition and socioeconomic background are connected also.

Bedrock’s vocabulary curriculum uses a deep-learning algorithm to personalise teaching for every learner, no matter their prior ability. Learners complete an Alpha test and are assigned vocabulary content from Block 3 to Block 12 that is challenging, yet accessible, using aspects of gamification to support independent learning.

On average, learners who complete two or more lessons on Bedrock per week make over 25% improvement in their literacy attainment, as supported by independent research.

For learners to develop a solid understanding of reading comprehension, they must achieve mastery in all of the foundational pillars of reading - these include decoding, grammar knowledge and vocabulary knowledge. For this reason, Bedrock’s core curriculum teaches vocabulary and grammar in tandem, using engaging teaching videos and human narration to support mastery of grammar techniques. This supports learners’ reading comprehension skills, helping them to access the complex content available to them in academic texts and equipping them for academic success in every subject.

Alongside vocabulary and grammar instruction, learners may need additional support to scaffold an effective essay, especially if critical thinking about art is not a common topic of discussion at home. Teachers are responsible for encouraging their students to think more deeply and creatively about texts - this is supported by Bedrock’s GCSE English topics, highlighting the subject-specific vocabulary of English essay writing and scaffolding essay responses.

Bedrock’s GCSE English content for English Literature and English Language uses a variety of classic texts in the canon to scaffold analytical and critical thinking, encouraging learners to craft their own responses. With Bedrock’s GCSE English curriculum, essay writing skills are no longer learned incidentally - they are taught explicitly, equipping learners with the formula they need for success in the exam hall.

In their guidance for improving literacy, the EEF recommends prioritising disciplinary literacy across the curriculum, stating that literacy is “a strong predictor of outcomes in later life”. Subject-specific literacy support is proven to improve attainment in every subject, equipping learners with the contextual knowledge they need for comprehension across the curriculum. However, as effective as it is, achieving this level of targeted literacy support is time-consuming and tricky to coordinate across your whole faculty.

Bedrock Mapper gives you and your team a unified portal from which to plan your disciplinary literacy curriculum. With over 25,000 Bedrock-created words across dozens of subjects, teachers across the curriculum can log in, plan their bespoke vocabulary curriculum and assess progress in just a few clicks. Mapper helps teachers to deliver quality teaching and to ensure learners communicate like experts across the curriculum, closing the attainment gap.

Explicit instruction of vocabulary, grammar and disciplinary literacy has the power to narrow attainment gaps.