10 July 2024

The Attainment Gap

A major challenge facing the education sector


The developmental and academic performance gap between disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged pupils within the UK is widely known as the attainment gap. These disparities begin in early childhood and manifest significantly in secondary school years. It particularly affects groups on the basis of socioeconomic status, ethnicity, special educational needs and disability.

Setbacks caused by the COVID-19 pandemic


The pandemic undoubtedly resulted in access to technology and support at home becoming a far more significant factor in the continuous widening of the attainment gap. With months of school closures, technology became an essential way for schools to continue some level of teaching. In 2020, 9% of households with children in the UK did not have access to a computer or laptop at home. Accounting for 1.78 million children, this doesn’t include the additional 880,00 children in households with only a mobile internet connection. This digital exclusion has countless other consequences beyond online learning including; a barrier to accessing support services, medical appointments and welfare activities, all of which inevitably have a domino effect on children’s learning and development. Even before the pandemic, evidence suggested children aged 11 to 18 who were digitally excluded spent 60 hours fewer learning online at home per year. The pandemic accelerated the already widening gap.

The ongoing cost of living crisis

Many families have been forced to cut back on essential provisions due to the major increase in prices. This undoubtedly has a large impact on the ability of pupils to reach their full potential, with energy, motivation and the ability to concentrate and retain information being important factors. In September 2022, the Food Foundation found that 25.8% of households with children were experiencing food insecurity, a stark increase from 12.7% in January of that same year. Free school meals continue to be a vital initiative but further difficulties of the last couple of years have suggested something more needs to be done. In order to achieve long term improvement to the issue of food insecurity, both more education and financial support need to be provided. This could be achieved through nutrition assistance programs, increasing benefit amounts and addressing the larger ongoing issue of unemployment.

Percentage of households with children that are experiencing food insecurity according to a poll by the Food Foundation in 2022 (1-month recall period).

Source: (The Food Foundation, 2022)

Far-reaching consequences

The effects of the attainment gap stay with pupils far beyond leaving school. Disadvantaged pupils experience fewer prospects for higher education and employment together with psychological difficulties including low self-esteem. A report from the House of Commons showed that in the 2019-20 school year, the number of children being referred to mental health services increased by 60% since 2017-18. Since the attainment gap has far-reaching consequences on success and security, this will continue to impact future generations of families, causing a cycle contrasting to that of affluent families. Crucially, it has been suggested that tackling the quality of education is the best way to break this intergenerational transmission of disadvantage. This includes providing teachers and support staff with specific training on how to recognize and support children who may be disengaged due to neglect, abuse or other traumas caused by individual pupils’ home circumstances.

The value of tutoring 

As schools are faced with insufficient available funding and resources to support their disadvantaged pupils, tutoring in schools is a key way to catch up on learning time. Following the challenges of the pandemic, those families who could afford it may have turned to tutoring as a means to catch their children up academically. However, with tutoring sessions at an average of £26 per hour, it is important to make tutoring available to those from disadvantaged backgrounds who would otherwise lack access. Tutor The Nation offers free, online, one-to-one tutoring to pupils in partner schools across the UK with tailored sessions from our volunteer tutors. This work is invaluable in helping to level out the support available to pupils from different backgrounds.

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