The attainment gap

Vulnerable children need intensive, personalised support to help them re-engage with friends, school and learning after lockdown. They need to establish how to set goals and achieve targets in a range of skills and disciplines so as to build the foundations for attainment. This needs careful co-ordination and will take a whole community effort.

The announcement that schools would not fully open before the end of this academic year has brought the Education Endowment Fund’s recent research findings, that school closures have already eradicated years of progress on narrowing the attainment gap, even more sharply into view. 

This suggests that the recent announcement of a national tutoring service is good news, as there is extensive evidence on the benefit of one-to-one and small group tuition in supporting children and young people to catch-up and achieve better outcomes. 

However, it begs the question as to whether additional academic tuition is going to be enough, or even the right approach, for vulnerable children at the widest end of the attainment gap. In our experience at West London Zone, tuition alone cannot close the gap, because attainment is not just an academic problem.


The issue

It is the result of a chasm in opportunity these children have faced throughout their lives. It is the product of multiple contributory factors such as the environment in which they live, their emotional capability to learn, the experience they may have had with education to date, as well as the societal and economic challenges that surround them. 

For children living in families struggling to get food or pay bills, or in environments far from conducive to home learning, alternative help is definitely needed. But if extra maths and english tutoring were not enough to help them before Covid-19 struck, they certainly won’t be enough now.

Instead, these children need intensive and personalised support that helps them learn how to set goals and achieve targets in a range of skills and disciplines, in turn enabling them to build the foundations of future academic attainment.


Our solution 

At West London Zone we support many vulnerable children in our area in this way, so we know how successfully they can respond to a well-rounded package of support for their social, emotional and academic development. But the support needs to be very carefully co-ordinated, delivered in the right way for each child, at the right time.  Every child needs to build different skills in different ways to overcome their challenges. 

That’s why we developed our delivery model in collaboration with other charities, schools and local councils, leading to the creation of dynamic 2-year personalised packages of support for each individual child. 

Designed to adapt as the children and young people develop, a typical programme could involve counselling or therapy, drama, art, confidence building workshops, alongside extra academic tuition.  And critically, each child’s programme is managed and held together by their trusted adult – their West London Zone Link Worker – who enables each child to set their own targets and goals and then supports them to achieve these.  

Our 2-year programme is as much about each child participating in support that encourages positive relationships with their Link Worker, friends, family and teachers, that inspires participation and self-worth, as it is about improving academic results. 

We aim to move children steadily and sustainably from disengagement to attainment. By combining a range of support together that is tailored to each child’s circumstances , we aim to unlock a child’s interest in learning and help them to develop the self-confidence they need to take the next step towards better academic results. Something that in our experience tuition cannot achieve alone. 


What we are doing today

Given this, the last three months have required a whole new level of adaptation. Our 29 Link Workers have conducted over 35,000 interactions (phone calls, video calls, emails, texts) with the 870 children currently on our programme and their families, as well as facilitating access to food or vouchers, paying bills, sorting out access to benefits and translation services, providing tablets and getting families online.

We are based in schools and last year approx 60% of children on our programme made above expected progress in English and maths, but despite that, amongst all the work done in the last three months, only 17% of our Link Worker’s interactions with WLZ children have been related to their schoolwork. The other 83% of requests were for emergency support to help with wellbeing and advice on how to stay positive.


Why aren't we enabling more tuition right now?

Schoolwork is just not at the top of many struggling families’ lists of concerns right now. We know it needs to be. We are deeply concerned about the widening attainment gap, and we know that it will have long term consequences for emotional and economic wellbeing of an entire generation of children. But our deep knowledge of the families we work with tells us that there is simply no point trying to get children to focus on fractions when they are full of fear and anxiety. 

So far, 93% of the children we work with are still not engaged in any kind of extra online tuition programme. Some are taking steps towards it by doing school work online with the support of their West London Zone Link Worker, but they have not engaged with additional specialist tuition.

For the 7% of children who are ‘ready to learn’, living in environments conducive to learning, we have mobilised online tuition with our specialist academic partners who have adapted to a remote delivery model very successfully.  

Ultimately, in partnership with schools, we aim to get as many children to engage with catch up learning on their new laptop or tablet as fast as possible, but we need to introduce it at the right time, in the right way.  


The ‘whatever it takes’ approach to reducing the attainment gap

Extra tuition is vital for those who are ready to learn and will raise many of them by a critical grade or more. But our experience tells us that some children need a range of very personalised support to help them progress towards improved academic attainment. One size never fits all and especially not now. 

This requires a significant investment of time and expertise to get to know each child and their context really well. It also requires a massive focus on social and emotional wellbeing as well as the process of learning itself. 

Only when we take all this on together, with all participants in a local community collaborating - schools, government, charities, companies and others – will we address the entirety of the attainment and opportunity gap.                   

together, every child and young person can flourish.