Equity, School Community

The Story Behind the Numbers

Using soft data and individualized responses to close the attainment gap

Across the developed world, there’s one seemingly intractable problem plaguing education, a problem that seems immune to the vast sums of money we continue to throw at it: I’m talking of course about attainment gap.

The issue needs no definition in this publication, or any other read by education practitioners, policymakers, researchers and commentators, but we’ll restate the case one more time. You know it’s on the collective mind of the education world when Google predicts your request before you’ve typed the first word: “attainment gap refers to the observed, persistent disparity of educational measures between the performance of groups of students, especially groups defined by socioeconomic status (SES), race/ethnicity and gender.”

It’s long been my contention – and the reason for the existence of my education consultancy firm – that our western education systems, in very broad strokes, can be said to be somewhat like western medicine: we’re great at surgery, not so much at preventive nutrition. We continue to favour the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff. We treat symptoms, rather than investigate causes.

In this article, I want to posit an idea that’s the bedrock on which my team and I stand, in all our work with schools across Europe: the assiduous collection and effective use of “soft data” is the first step in addressing the myriad factors behind attainment gap. This data invariably tells us one thing in sum: there are as many reasons for the failure to realize learning potential as there are students, but there is always something personal behind the wall of numbers. Armed with this knowledge, every school, no matter where its students fall on the socio-economic spectrum, can work with families to plug the cracks.

There are surely no longer any education leaders who would deny the importance of student wellness to achievement potential. There is of course still that die-hard group that, while grudgingly acknowledging that learning preparedness is indeed hobbled by matters beyond the school gate, insists that wellness is beyond the scope of schooling. In my experience, this is often a political or even generational argument, and is a wider debate than we can get into here. I would argue though that we should be coming at the issue from another angle: how can schools best use the time and resources they do have to give all students the best chance at an equal footing with their more privileged – economically or otherwise – peers?

Community before learning

Nathan Atkinson of Richmond Hill School stands out for me as one of the most innovative and inspiring principals I’ve had the privilege of working with. He is, I believe, a pioneer in community engagement. Richmond Hill serves a community of acute deprivation in the northern U.K. city of Leeds. Starting with the picture revealed by soft data on things like attitude, engagement and self-esteem – the “other stuff” beyond the achievement numbers – Atkinson and his team identified a number of barriers to learning shaped by life outside school.

Soft data tells the same story wherever it’s collected: simply prescribing extra tutoring for the learner who’s falling through the cracks achieves exactly zero when school is the least of their problems. Atkinson formed the view that, given a school’s responsibility for academic outcomes, doing everything the school can to support families is the only way forward.

Research revealed that many of Atkinson’s students were arriving at school undernourished, mainly due to poverty and unconscious neglect. It’s intuitively obvious that empty stomachs mean listless and disengaged learners. Armed with this knowledge, forcing hungry children into yet more schoolwork in an effort to help them catch up seems at best like wilful blindness.

Atkinson’s solution took into account the likelihood that to lecture parents on their failings amounted to no more than “poverty shaming.” Instead he used food as a means of fostering closer connections. He converted an unused area of the school into a “pay as you feel” café, built to the high standard of any other. In partnership with supermarkets, caterers, and wholesalers, who were more than happy to divert the huge quantities of edible and potable waste that would normally go to landfills, the café became a hub where parents, students, families and teachers could mingle. A food shop has been also been set up, and the option to pay ensures that the loss of dignity associated with accepting charity is alleviated.

The simple medium of coming together around food and sharing has had many positive effects. Parents chat with teachers over a coffee, they ask for help, they share their worries as well as their laughter. In many cases, these parents, because their own experience of school was less than positive, are suspicious of the education establishment. A coffee and a muffin can start to replace mistrust with the recognition of common humanity.

Focus on the individual

An article I wrote some time ago for The Guardian newspaper is an example of how heart, rather than head, is required for a nuanced and individualized response to attainment gap.

I told the story of a British school that bought a student a bicycle because he was struggling in maths. I received more than one response proudly informing me that their school had faithfully applied this winning solution, and bought 20 bikes. This is profoundly missing a point that I believe is essential to forming effective attainment gap strategy: a specific soft data problem requires a specific intervention.

Rather than simply throwing remedial tutoring at the struggling student, the school in my article made the choice to investigate. It turned out that the student was consistently late to the first lesson of the day: Mathematics. Rather than imposing a penalty, the school asked why. The student turned out to be largely responsible for the care of two young siblings; unsurprisingly, this young person missed his bus more often than not.

There is always something personal behind the wall of numbers… Your weapon of choice should be the metaphorical laser, not the shotgun.

The school understood that there are two things essential to the heartbreakingly common cause of the young caregiver: rest and self-esteem. Insisting that the overburdened student give his breaks to extra tuition would take away perhaps the only downtime he got during the day, not to mention further restricting his opportunity for social interaction – which no-one would begrudge a young person shouldering responsibilities most of us don’t need to worry about till we’re ready for them.

The school spoke to the student, his parents, and his social worker, and made no assumptions about a “proper” response to this child’s life situation.

Both the money and the bike are beside the point. What made a difference in this case was a school that was prepared to look beyond an if/then solution, and inquire into the nuance of this student’s daily reality. The results were borne out in improved achievement. Your weapon of choice should be the metaphorical laser, not the shotgun. 

A formula for individuality?

It may seem as though I’m contradicting my previous assertion, but my team and I have a five-step formula, applicable to any school or collaborative group of schools, that can make a serious dent in the most stubborn attainment gap. These five tenets are:

  1. Start with the early years and catch the gap before it sets in.
  2. Make sure the school is trained and equipped to carry out detailed, nuanced assessments that accurately identify inhibiting issues.
  3. Ensure teaching staff are trained to deliver consistently outstanding personalized learning through differentiated learning and adapted curriculum.
  4. At every strata of the school, ensure that soft data is captured, tracked and demonstrated – from individual students to interventions to whole-school data.
  5. Finally, and this is the kicker, encourage and support lead teachers to reach out to their parents and help their school evolve into an organization that engages consistently with those hard-to-reach parents: this is where aspiration is lifted. 

My team and I experience our greatest challenges in delivering the fifth principle above. Yet for me, this is the heart of the process we try to take schools through. This fifth step is the one that spurs parents and teachers alike to expect and encourage higher aspiration. For some schools, this represents a brave new frontier: it can be seen as wasteful for lead teachers to engage directly with parents beyond what might be considered normal, because they don’t see that such would make any difference to the school’s achievement data. I strongly believe that we need to think again. I contend that there is in fact a direct link between community aspiration and achievement. And when we foster preparedness for learning, whether it’s by facing up to malnourishment at school or crafting an individual response to an individual problem, nothing can be achieved without the support of the community.

Schools must, in my view, understand that their role is never ring-fenced or neatly and inflexibly defined – not, at any rate, if they wish to get beyond the cycle of ever-increasing academic intervention and subsequent head-scratching over results that won’t move in the right direction.


En Bref : L’écart de performance – la différence persistante entre les résultats scolaires des groupes d’élèves relativement privilégiés et défavorisés – semble constituer un problème insoluble en éducation. Dans cet article, l’auteur demande comment les écoles peuvent le mieux utiliser leur temps et leurs ressources pour donner à tous les élèves les meilleures chances d’être sur un pied d’égalité avec leurs pairs plus privilégiés sur les plans économiques et autres. Plutôt que d’appliquer la solution par défaut d’accroître le tutorat des élèves en difficulté, il soutient qu’il faut recueillir des données intangibles pour découvrir les histoires personnelles expliquant les faibles performances et qu’une solution nuancée, individualisée, peut abattre certains des obstacles à l’apprentissage de ces élèves. Citant quelques exemples tirés d’écoles du Royaume-Uni, il démontre que tendre la main à ces élèves et à leurs familles et les impliquer dans la recherche de solutions rehaussent les résultats scolaires et améliorent le bien-être des élèves.



Photo: istock

First published in Education Canada, June 2016

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