What is being done to address the educational attainment gap?

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BaNES schools come in above average against national expected learning standards, but these figures disguise significant disparities in the region where the gap between the highest and lowest achieving pupils remains stark. The government has set a target for 90% of primary school leavers to reach expected learning standards by 2030, but what is being done on a local and national level to achieve this, and address the attainment gap?

In July, results from Year 6 national Standard Assessment Tests (Sats) revealed that whilst standards increased or remained the same across most individual subjects compared with last year, reading levels among these pupils in England fell. Overall, the combined reading, writing and maths (RWM) levels remain lower than pre-COVID nationally, with 59% reaching the expected level at the end of Key Stage 2 (KS2), compared with 65% in 2019.

In BaNES, whilst the regional break down of Sats figures are not yet available for the 2022/23 cohort, in the previous year 60% of pupils in the region reached the expected standard in RWM combined, just ahead of the 2021/22 national figure of 59%, and South West level at 57%. However, this was still markedly below the 67% pre-COVID level in BaNES.

These figures do not paint the full picture. Attainment levels are generally lower among under-served children in the community for a complex combination of reasons. In the 2023 Strategic Evidence Base for BaNES report, the percentage of pupils identified as ‘disadvantaged’ that reached the expected standard in RWM combined in 2021/22 in the region was significantly lower than England, standing at just 34%, compared to 43% nationally.

While equality of access to a good education is critical to reducing the attainment gap, it is only part of the story. Physical, behavioural and emotional needs of children, including access to nutritious food, all play factors in narrowing the gap.

What is happening nationally to narrow the gap?

On a national level, there are various programmes and funding schemes in place, some existing and some new, that are designed to reduce the educational attainment gap over the coming seven years and reach the 2030 target. For example, half of tutoring costs will be funded through the National Tutoring Scheme in 2023-4, a rise on the government’s previous commitment. Since 2018, investment into an English Hubs Programme and latterly Maths Hubs has aimed to develop expertise in teaching reading and maths in primary schools. The Department for Education is also updating its existing Reading Framework to cover KS2 and KS3, providing guidance on how teachers can help pupils who need additional support, and reviewing ‘good practice in teaching of writing’ as a resource for schools.

Despite a shelved Schools Bill in 2022, some elements of its proposals remain, including a focus on attendance to support sustained learning. Programmes such as the Phonic Screening Check in Year 1 are designed to pick up those who need further support and specific funding packages such as Local Needs Funding are aimed at supporting the most under-served pupils to boost literacy, numeracy and attendance. It is yet to be seen whether these initiatives will be enough.

What is the picture in Bath and North East Somerset?

Whilst BaNES ranks as one of the least deprived local authorities in England (ranked 269 out of 317 with 1 being the most deprived), inequality is widening in the region and deprivation remains significant in certain areas, with Twerton West and Whiteway falling within the most deprived 10% nationally. These areas typically see the widest attainment gap, with a disparity between children eligible for Free School Meals and those not.

St John’s are working towards levelling the playing field and narrowing the attainment gap for Key Stage 2 children locally through our Foundation Fund. We are working with numerous delivery partners on a broad range of programmes that support children from 0 to 12 years. These programmes cover oracy and communication in the pre-school years to foundational reading, writing, oracy, maths and behavioural and emotional support throughout primary school.

A significant part of our work is through the Primary Empowerment Programme where we are working with seven local primary schools which are attended by 40% of the most disadvantaged children in the region. With the proven links between nutritious food and academic achievement, funding school meals for non-eligible children at these schools – some of whom are from families that may only be just above the eligibility threshold – is one important aspect of our support. This sits alongside funding for additional help with learning for those most under-served children, ensuring that effective interventions and tools are available.

With the recent close of the 2022-23 school year, the Programme has just completed its second of three years. Initial indications at the end of year one suggested that children eligible for Free School Meals (or pupil premium funding) across the seven PEP schools may be closing the gap between their non pupil premium peers more quickly than the national average. However, until the data from year two has been reviewed and assessed for progress, it is not possible to draw firm conclusions. Nonetheless, alongside the national initiatives to help schools reach the goal for 90% of primary school leavers to reach expected learning standards by 2030, St John’s is playing a key role in BaNES, where the attainment gap is stark, to ensure there are additional region-wide projects and resources in place to help provide all children with the same chances to live happy, healthy lives and benefit from a strong educational foundation.