That gap isn’t getting narrower: now what?

The Bell Curve Attainment Gap

It is one of many rallying cries of contemporary EduSpeak: we’ve got to narrow the gap.  Uncontentious; obvious. Clearly this our mission.  That gap is a stain on our collective conscience and not only is it too big, it is getting wider. The system is failing, schools are failing, too many kids are left behind and that gap just won’t close.   It’s actually nothing short of a disgrace…..  It must be because research proves it (Professor Becky Francis told us so at an Essex Heads’ conference last year).  To recap.. the gap is too big and is a disgrace.

Well, hold on a minute. We’re working ourselves into the ground here… we’d better be sure we know what this gap is before we’re all crucified for failing; and we’d better be clear about where it comes from and why it won’t close.   To begin with, we need to be clear whether it is a relative gap that troubles us – ie the gap that exists between the attainment of certain sub-groups against the general average of all students – or an absolute gap: the gap between the attainment of the lowest achieving group and a certain set of required standards.

Given the dominance of norm-referencing in our assessment system, I’m pretty sure we are not talking about closing an absolute gap.  This would be fine; we could strive to ensure all learners attain above some basic standards.  However, my feeling is that the narrowing-gap mantra actually applies to the spread of attainment in the population and the sense that this width is too wide.  RAISEOnline is full of sub-group attainment data and clearly it is a concern if say SEN Boys or White Boys on FSM are falling behind the rest.  However,  even in this context when a gap is evident I feel that the talk of narrowing gaps is a mistake.  Typically the identification of gaps leads to all kinds of short-term intervention strategies as schools do all they can to raise educational attainment for these students.  But the gaps persist. Strategies to improve boys’ reading, also improve reading for girls – but by even more.  Gap-narrowing as a concept doesn’t address root causes of poor educational outcomes and actually, I don’t believe that the gaps can ever be narrowed in a meaningful sense.  We’re on a hiding to nothing.

The idealised shift?

I think what people want to imagine is that we can implement educational policies that will lead to a shift like this one. This shows the normal distribution curve moving along as attainment increases for all, but it also bunches up as the gap or spread closes.

However, I can’t think of a single educational initiative that could possibly achieve this unless we deliberately went out of our way to hold back the top end to allow the lower end to catch up.  This seem unethical and is certainly impractical.

What is more likely to happen, is that attainment-raising initiatives that have any impact at all, will have a multiplying effect on all learners leading to the bell curve spreading out even further.  I’m not saying that this is inherently desirable  – it is just inevitable and unavoidable.  As attainment rises, the range spreads. It could be that we are talking about the gap between a child’s attainment and their potential – using things like three levels of progress to gauge where there is a gap. Even here there is a flaw.  Why would be expect students of vastly different abilities aged 11 to make progress in parallel from that point on?

The realistic shift

It is fairly obvious why there is a natural diverging tendency.  All the factors that lead to the gaps emerging in the first place are powerful and usually ever-present, most notably, the influence of socio-economic status, parental education and general attitudes and confidence around education and aspirations in the home.   Whatever we do in schools to raise aspirations and raise attainment, those already bestowed with high  capital in this regard, will benefit still further.

Another way to look at it is to think of the graph of attainment over time.  The two lines represent the trajectory for the most and least highly attaining students.   The data for English schools, looks a bit like the diagram here. This correlates strongly to social stratification.   There is a slightly growing trend in the top half but it doesn’t change that rapidly.  In fact, a good case could be made that schools do a decent job in keeping the gap as narrow as it is, given the enormous range of starting points we are dealing with.

Attainment Gap over time

The key point is that the gap starts to emerge from the very beginning -from birth.  It grows most rapidly in those early months and years so that by the time children arrive at primary school, the range of vocabulary, reading skills, social skills and powers of concentration needed for school-based learning are vast. From then on, teachers are basically doing all they can to hold things together.

The gap cannot narrow from that point; the very best we can do is to make the lines parallel and stop the gap growing any further – even this is hard.  In fact, it is probably undesirable.  Why?  Because as I have argued elsewhere, a key mechanism for raising standards for all is to teach to the top and adopt a total philosophy of G&T-led thinking.  By allowing the gap to grow, stretching out from the top, we have the best hope of raising standards for all as in the ‘realistic shift’ graph.  Isn’t this better? To have attainment rising for all, as far and as fast as possible, even if it means the gaps are growing?  No-one is left behind as such, and relative to absolute standards, gaps are closing.  If we want everyone to get above a certain standard, stretching it out is the best way to do this. Conversely, seeking solutions focusing on relative gaps is likely to under-stretch an entire cohort and this will not do anyone any good.

So, what can we do?  Well clearly, the place to look for fundamental gap-narrowing is the place where it begins.  There is a continually reinforcing cycle of poor education and economic disadvantage leading to children growing up in an environment  less conducive to success; breaking the cycle is the key – and that should be our rallying cry.   ‘Breaking the cycle’ has to be addressed on all fronts.  Addressing economic disadvantage is the ultimate goal but a lot of work could and should be done to educate parents to be better parents – I call this ‘parenting for learning’.  We need to get over our phobia of Big Brotherish state-led projection of values and attitudes to build-in the education of parents as part and parcel of all educational activity -literally from birth, all the way through school.  We’ve spent enough time and money over the years on health education – from smoking to vaccinations and general healthy living. We’re not squeamish about that.  Now we need to turn our attention to telling people about the power and responsibility they have to bring up their children as educated people.  Schools should be for parents as much as for children – or else we will just go round and round. (And in case this isn’t obvious, beyond providing the best general education we can, it is massively complicated to teach kids about parenting at the same time as telling them not to have children at all until they are much older. The best time to teach about parenting is when it is actually happening.)

As we stand, schools have a massive part to play in tackling the issue of educational inequality.  But without more fundamental social action, talk of narrowing the gap is the simply the wrong call;  it doesn’t work, can’t work and leads us down the wrong path.  In another post, I will outline more ideas for breaking the cycle.  Enough for now.


  1. I agree and enjoyed the discourse concerning the “attainment gap over time”. Interestingly, this model fits BIS, ever-more-so when students begin at KS3. My interest would be the social stratification component and the fact that at BIS, the “Gap” appears to decrease from KS3 – KS5. Interesting!


  2. […] raising aspirations. We need to get in early to stop those gaps from emerging as I argue in my ‘The Gap isn’t getting any narrower’ post. Parenting for Learning? SureStart with an educational focus? This is how to raise the bar […]


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