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Addressing the Learning Gap – What Can Teachers Do?

By Alan Peters,

24 Jan 2020

Anybody heard of Steve Strand? He’s a very clever chap, an Oxford professor invited by the Government to produce the catchily entitled ‘Ethnicity, Deprivation and Educational Achievement … (plus twenty-four other multi-syllabled words.)’ It is a dense, depressing read.

Like a kind of black murder mystery where the crime is school failure and the victims plentiful.

Unfortunately, in Professor Strand’s masterpiece, there is no flawed detective to solve the crime and bring the culprit, screaming and swearing, to justice.

There is no twist, either.

We can guess the outcome at the outset, so to speak. The achievement gap, learning gap, call it what we will, is as broad and clear and damaging as ever.

Professor Steve does at least demonstrate that achievement, at least in terms of exam results, is rising if not narrowing.

There are plenty who would put that down to grade inflation as much as improvement in learning.

However, the number of groups whose achievement seems to be defined by their economic status, ethnicity or gender is as unpalatable as ever. Girls do better than boys, those on free school meals underperform against their wealthier peers; ethnic minority groups achieve less well than white British youngsters.

There are exceptions.

Chinese students have been constantly high attainers, while the Bangladeshi community achieve, according to the good Professor’s statistics, more than any other group.

Interestingly, black Africans outperform black Caribbean students. But little of the above is surprising.

What is, at least to our political masters and mistresses, a shock is that we, as teachers, can do little to change society.

We cannot suddenly turn coasting white middle class girls in rural primary schools into ultra-competitive, driven learners.

(In fact, we could question quite why there is the perceived necessity of turning any child into an ultra-competitive, driven one?) We cannot instil a love of learning into teenage Jamaican boys when problems faced by that aspect of society are manifold and run far beyond the school gates. So, apologies to both whichever secretary of state is in charge at the time of publication and Fleet Street editors, the woes of society do not lay at the door of teachers, and nor will the medicine needed to cure those ills be found there. What Can Teachers Do to Address Inequality? What Professor Strand demonstrates (and I promise that this will be our last reference to him) is that, despite decades of attempts to address the learning gap, progress is minimal.

Free school meal data demonstrates that no progress at all has been made in addressing issues driven by wealth.

There has been a small improvement in ethnic equality, but the gender gap has actually become wider over the ten-year period of his study. And therein lies, indirectly, some ways in which teachers can help. Does the Data Tell the Truth? When comparing the success or otherwise of groups, it is necessary to define what success looks like.

Two criteria are used most often.

Occasionally, rates of attendance and expulsion will be the basis for comparison, presumably on the far from certain premise that attendance at school equates to best progress. More often GCSE results, with the arbitrary figure of five, is the benchmark against which assessments are made. Every Student’s Gap is Different Along with OFSTED pressures, media misinformation and the establishment’s obsession with creating competition rather than collaboration, league tables have become disproportionately important in a school’s success. We, as teachers, cannot change that.

However, we know that five grade Cs for a student of outstanding potential is a failure, while three passes and a strong degree of personal development for another pupil can represent enormous success. Perhaps the first thing a teacher can do to help address the learning gap is to help each student recognise what success means for them.

This involves defining the term in a much broader sense than exam results. Once we have a genuinely shared picture of what a student wishes to achieve, we can better help them to do this.

The likely result will be better attendance, better motivation and better enjoyment.

Inevitably, a by-product will be improved exam results. Learn From the Independent Sector Having worked extensively (as teacher, school leader and inspector) in both the independent and maintained sector, some conclusions seem clear: exam passes are higher in independent schools; teaching is neither better nor worse although is more varied in style and quality; spending per pupil is higher; more time is spent on ‘soft’ subjects – sport, art, drama, music; there are generally more extra-curricular activities on offer. Of course, there are many possible reasons to explain the achievement gap between the different systems (something not mentioned by the good professor…) but there seems to be little doubt that often parents are paying for fun (as well as small classes and impressive architecture).

Let’s take the primary sector as an example.

What might a typical day be for a ten-year-old? SPAG to start (early arrivals do some extra spellings), a literacy hour that stretches to ninety minutes (it’s not numeracy, so a 90-minute hour doesn’t matter), followed by the same in maths.

After lunch there may be other subjects, but often these simply revise literacy and numeracy by another name.

We can’t blame schools who are under so much pressure to focus on these two areas.

But is it any surprise that by eleven kids are fed up with English and maths? English is about literature and creativity, not learning obscure grammar labels.

Maths is about problem solving, not rote learning.

Perhaps if schools gave over more of their curricular to ‘fun’, our children might all do better. But which teachers will take the risk of breaking the mould? Kids Are Individuals, Not Statistics Initiatives designed to address learning gaps are, mostly, well intentioned.

But, as we have seen, they don’t work.

A problem with them is they are aimed at ‘groups’, yet it is obvious that not every middle-class white girl achieves highly, and many young boys from Pakistani heritage do very well in their studies.

Generalisation is dangerous. As teachers, once we forget that our classes are made up of individuals, rather than ethnic, gender, cultural or any other sort of group, we are in trouble.

In the prevailing educational and political climate, it is hard to see every student as an individual, and easy to lose sight of the essential nature of such. But simply by remembering that we are dealing with a collection of unique individuals will help everyone to make the best progress possible.

Professor Strand (I know, I promised not to mention the good academic again, sorry) shows that Caribbean students achieve least in terms of GCSE passes.

While effort is put into identifying what within that culture contributes to this statistic, the onus is frequently placed upon tackling differences, rather than celebrating and cultivating them. While we might be entering the land of the Cloud Cuckoo by dreaming of this, perhaps the best way of teachers helping to address the learning gap is to recognise, promote and celebrate what constitutes good learning – social, academic, vocational, artistic or sporting – for each individual student.

Rather than shaking our heads over failing groups, we break them into their constituent parts, that is, individual children, and help each to achieve their dreams. Madness, some might claim.

But such an approach can’t do any worse than the failed attempts by the experts (and politicians) to make schools better for every student.

Can it?


1- What is the best way to close the attainment gap?

2- Reducing the gender gap in education

3- Academy schools raising attainment more than state schools

4- Why the pupil premium needs a rethink?