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Mind the Gap

The challenge of investigating ways to close the gap for specific pupils who are deemed disadvantaged is that not all conform to the stereotype of underachievement. For many schools the issue of the gap between those who perform and those who do not is deemed to be an issue of those who are not disadvantaged and those that are – this is far too simple a correlation. Some who are disadvantaged achieve well academically and appear to buck the stereotype while others follow the stereotype and perform poorly when judged against the non-disadvantaged.

There are many explanations for why there might be a gap in academic achievement. Social factors, such as quality of family life, and economic factors, such as poverty, play significant roles. Equally significant is the role our schools can play – quality of teaching and learning, attention to student well-being, improving life chances and helping young people to realise their personal potential. (West-Burnham 2014)

At Birchwood we have been trialling strategies across the school to narrow the gap in academic achievement of disadvantaged students. The sharing of good practice across the staff body has been vital in our mission to close the gap. Some strategies used are simple, yet have the potential to yield small and immediate triumphs aimed at building student confidence in their ability to achieve. These include tactics such as:

  • adapting seating plans to sit students by a motivated student or near the teacher, according to need

  • sending postcards home, or calling home, to praise positive attitudes / activities

  • giving students a question to ponder at the start of, or early on in, the lesson so that they have opportunity to construct an answer to enable them to take part in discussion later on in the lesson

  • ‘irresistible extension tasks’ as a reward for finishing, e.g. becoming a student teacher for another task

. Other strategies underpin learning in a more subtle way:

  • Marking the work of disadvantaged students first to allow for greater depth or providing verbal feedback that students can record (to avoid red pen syndrome)

  • Contacting home or SEND department to discuss student issues and how wider ranging strategies can support individual students specific to their needs

  • Ensuring we ‘plug the gaps’ for students with high absence rates – planning for additional personalised ways to do this, such as providing prompts for discussion, recap tests with answers provided so that students can test themselves without the fear of sharing failure

It is important that we strive to break the cycle of low aspiration that is so often seen in disadvantaged students if we are to close the attainment gap for them. Our project is an attempt to address this issue. Having started the push with Year 11 we have moved on to focus afresh on Year 10 and to cascade across the year groups. How successful have we been with Year 11? Watch this space!

Sally Feather-Levey

Birchwood High School

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