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Is the ‘attainment gap’ fit for purpose?

Faizaan Ahmed, Oaks Park High School

In 2011 the UK government announced that it would introduce a new stream of funding to support ‘disadvantaged students’, and ultimately aim to close the attainment gap between these students and their peers. However, in 2018 the Education Policy Institute reported that it would take 50 years to close this gap entirely (Hutchinson et al 2018). The report outlined the pace at which the gap was closing, before commenting on potential measures for speeding up the process of closing the attainment gap. This report was preceded by the Department for Education’s 2015 report on ‘supporting the attainment of disadvantaged students’ (Macleod, Sharp, Bernardinelli, Skipp, & Higgins, 2015). However, no reports have been able to explain why few, if any, schools in England appear to have maintained a consistent reduction in their attainment gap over a sustained period, or why even seemingly model schools show such variation year-to-year.

All of this points to one uncomfortable truth: the ‘attainment gap’ is fundamentally flawed.

Aggregate performance

The attainment gap is calculated by taking the aggregate progress (that is, performance towards targets based on previous attainment) of all students who are deemed ‘disadvantaged’ and comparing this to the aggregate progress of their peers. Unfortunately, like most aggregate calculations, this masks differences in the make-up of each cohort.

This leads us to the first challenge: we are simply not comparing like with like. For example, some cohorts may contain a greater proportion of high-attaining students compared to another. With students with higher prior attainment subject to fewer academic barriers, the likelihood of positive results increases. Conversely, a preponderance of students with lower prior attainment raises the chances of underperformance, due to the greater number of barriers they usually experience. This is consistent with research which estimates that school-based factors account for only 19 per cent of a student’s final grade, with the remaining 80 per cent being individual and/or home-based (Rasbash, Leckie, Pillinger, & Jenkins, 2010). As a result, a school may find it closes its attainment gap due to the happenstance of a high-ability disadvantaged cohort who are more likely to achieve their targets and make progress.

Comparative performance

One of the tenets of a liberal society and education system is respect for and the primacy of the individual. Because of this, in schools we respect and celebrate students for their individual achievements, regardless of how others may have performed. However, when calculating the attainment gap, we ultimately ignore this. We consider results of disadvantaged students only in relation to their peers. As a result, disadvantaged students may have performed well, especially in relation to their starting positions but, due simply to the happenstance of their peers, we either ignore or undervalue their performance. We may even overlook long-term improvements, or improvements among specific kinds of students, due to our obsession with comparative performance. All of this should force us to question how much we really value the performance of disadvantaged students, and how much we value their performance for our own instrumental reasons.


‘With the attainment gap predicated on such potentially volatile and unethical ground, is not time we ask whether the attainment gap is fit for purpose?’

The final challenge presented by the attainment gap is that it treats students from disadvantaged backgrounds as a homogeneous group. Such an approach is unlikely to be applied to other groups with pronounced needs such as SEND students (Sobel, 2018). Furthermore, the approach we take to SEND students is highly personalised, and therefore there is a recognition that any aggregate or comparative performance measurement gap is of limited utility. Finally, by focussing on the group, don’t we undermine our moral claim to be helping individuals when we do not recognise their individual needs to begin with?

With the attainment gap predicated on such potentially volatile and unethical ground, is not time we ask whether the attainment gap is fit for purpose?


Hutchinson, J., Robinson, D., Carr, D., Crenna-Jennings, W., Hunt, E. & Akhal, A. (2018). Education in England: Annual Report 2018. London: Institute of Education Policy. Retrieved from

Macleod, S., Sharp, C., Bernardinelli, D. Skipp, A., & Higgins, S. (2015, November). Supporting the attainment of disadvantaged pupils: Articulating success and good practice: Research report. London & Durham: National Foundation for Educational Research, Ask Research & Durham University. Retrieved from

Rasbash, J., Leckie, G., Pillinger, R. & Jenkins, J. (2010). Children’s educational progress: Partitioning family, school and area effects. Journal of the Royal Statistical Society, 173(3).

Sobel, D. (2018). Narrowing the Attainment Gap: A handbook for schools. London: Bloomsbury Education.

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