Demystifying the Attainment Gap

Imagine you are a maths teacher, starting at a new school in a deprived area. You are nervous, as you know that the classes will range enormously in their ability, but you are also excited to start. You are well qualified for the job and have spent some time teaching at a private school previously. You are passionate about maths and have lots of pre-existing lesson plans.

After half a term in the job, despite your behaviour management policies being largely well-enforced, and your ostensibly good relationship with the students, you notice that through a combination of measuring their test results (hard data), and through conversations about the aspirations of the students (soft data), there are some discrepancies: some high achieving students have very low ambitions for themselves, while some students who you know to be bright, are simply not getting the results that you know they are capable of.

You are somewhat stumped; why would a selection of bright students be underperforming in this way?

There are a huge variety of factors why this would be the case, and I will address some of them here, falling into three main categories.

Firstly, let’s consider the students who are delivering on the hard data results, but causing concern when you interact with them. Let’s take Jonty, a student from a very poor background, who while not ‘neglected’, was living at home with a chronically depressed single mother, and a schizophrenic sibling who had attempted suicide several times. The atmosphere at home was dismal, and Jonty had used school and studying as an escape, resulting in his getting all eights and nines at GCSE. As his maths teacher, you encourage him to consider Oxbridge, knowing that he has the potential to get in. You even take him to an open day and help him through the application process. Despite getting an offer, Jonty turns it down in order to get an immediate vocational job to support his family. Of course, students should be allowed to decide for themselves what they want to do with their lives, but it is clear here that had Jonty been made aware earlier of his own capabilities, his self-esteem and self-worth might have allowed him to fulfil his potential.

A second scenario is somewhat of a variation on the first, but this time, as you watch and guide a student, Ana, as they rise up through the school, they bumble along at the bottom of the class, always pleasant and well behaved, but with little desire or aspiration to push themselves any further. Ana’s parents attend every parents evening but are very clear that they want Ana to join the family hairdressing business. Without really realising, you go along with this and put less effort and enthusiasm into pushing Ana in class than you otherwise might. Deep down, you know that whatever results she gets, she will go into hairdressing, and she is not the brightest student in the class anyway, so it seems to be somewhat of a waste of time to put lots of energy into her. Ana does not get a C in maths and leaves school at sixteen to do a hairdressing traineeship. This is a scenario in which you are actually colluding with the parent’s aspiration for their child. There must be an attitudinal shift here: every child should be encouraged to achieve the best they can in any circumstance. You never know what could have happened had Ana got a higher maths grade. While she may have still decided to go into hairdressing, she also might have surprised you and her family by deciding to pursue a different interest, and continue with higher education. By not putting more effort into her, you were part of reducing her life opportunities.

The third scenario is probably the most common in schools in low-income areas. You are faced with a few students in your class who, despite occasionally showing signs of high intellectual capability, consistently perform badly in tests and regularly misbehave. On the occasional ‘good day’, they finish activities ahead of other students. But most of the time, they are a drain on your energy, and you end up having to send them out of the class regularly for bad behaviour. You haven’t been given a file with information about these students, so you just don’t know why they would be behaving like this, which frustrates you.

It is this last scenario which I will now focus on. What are the reasons behind these unexpected cases of underperformance and misbehaviour?

It turns out there are a plethora of potential answers to this question.

Here are some factors that you, as a teacher, should consider when you are faced with students from low-income backgrounds, who are not realising their potential:

What circumstances were your students in before they started school?

Students from low-income backgrounds are less likely to have access to quality early childhood education. The Hart and Ridley study from the 1990s found that North American children from ‘professional’ backgrounds encountered approximately 32 million more words than children from ‘professional’ backgrounds by age four. It’s also important to think about what language is being spoken at home. If it’s not English, then not only will that student begin school on the backfoot, but throughout school, their parents will be less likely to be able to help with homework, or engage with the school.

Are your students being looked after enough at home?

Students from lower-income backgrounds are more likely to come to school hungry, to receive less medical care and to have been offered fewer enriching extracurricular activities. The hunger problem can be tackled by a breakfast club at school, but the infrequency of visiting a doctor might mean there are undiagnosed problems such as bad eyesight or hearing, which have a serious impact on learning. The lack of enrichment can lead to a lack of inspiration and a narrow viewing of the world, especially in comparison to their peers who are being offered music, dance, art or sports lessons, and being regularly taken to museums.

If these problems are serious and frequent, they become cases of neglect and abuse, which has long term physical as well as mental health outcomes.

What kind of housing and communities are your students coming from every day?

Students from lower-income families are both more likely to be in poor quality housing (increasing the risks of asthma, meningitis and slow growth, alongside the increased risk of mental health problems). Their parents are also inevitably far less likely to be homeowners, making moving around, complex housing arrangements, and nasty landlords more likely. A chaotic home environment, where, for example, loud neighbours could be preventing your student from getting enough sleep, can hugely impact their performance in class.

What about students not from low-income backgrounds, who still seem to face these problems?

Of course, all the above problems could also be faced by non-low-income background students. But there are some more issues that may be being faced, that have nothing to do with income. For example, families that regularly move location affects a child’s progress, both because it cannot be tracked, but also because the child is often less willing to invest in getting to know new routines and environments. This could be a result of military families, diplomat families or new migrants (among others).

Looked after children is a HUGE factor toward performance in school, which I will not go into here, but which combine almost all the other factors listed.

Finally, special educational needs (SEN) students inevitably face more challenges in the classroom. A common example of an SEN is ADHD, which often results in the student being blamed for their behaviour when it is not their fault.

Ok, there’s a long and arduous list of reasons your first half term teaching maths might have been more difficult than you anticipated…

Narrowing the attainment gap is about recognising the deeply compound nature of the issue, and as a teacher, you need to develop a nuanced outlook to respond to the unique challenges of your individual students.

Here are five basic responses to the issues raised. They all involve:

  1. Getting behind the reasons for poor attainment and performance
  2. Dealing with causes rather than symptoms
  3. Focussing on overcoming barriers and exploring motivations
  4. Seeing students as individuals with unique sets of challenges and gifts
  5. Enabling you as the teacher to understand and support the student to grow in skill and aspiration.

Don’t worry, that’s not the end of the road. There is far more advice and support out there. But this is a good place to start

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