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If there were a magic wand we’d all be waving it: Closing the gap

With so much emphasis on the achievement gap these days, schools are frantically looking for solutions. Every now-and-then schools get in touch asking me for solutions. Given that I don’t think I have the answers they’re looking for (and am not convinced they exist), I find myself having an awkward conversation in which have to admit I’d be a waste of their money.

Here’s one of the responses I wrote recently in which I tried to explain my sense that issues of poverty and disadvantage are far too complex to be solved by a one size fits all approach:

“Hi…

Sorry I’ve not been touch sooner about your query re. January training. 
I’m not sure how well I explained what I was saying about the training idea and we spoke. 
My concern is that I don’t think I’d feel happy coming in and giving training on generic approaches to support FSM pupils. I’m worried that it would be a waste of your money since what will be appropriate to your pupils will depend so much on what your pupils’ needs are and your school and teachers’ strengths and weaknesses. I think it’s great that you’ve decided to focus in on closing your attainment gap but the first step in doing that is to spend time analysing your cohort and what their issues are so that you can say what it is specifically that needs to change. That strategic thinking and analysis will probably need to be led initially by you and your colleagues on the SLT, combined with consultation and engagement with teachers over time. If I were just to come in and talk about it for 45mins with a group of teachers without them having the data and other information to hand then it will be hard for them to come up with a well evidenced plan that gets acted on over the course of the whole year. And if I try and chuck around generic solutions they may well be inappropriate and are unlikely to change teachers’ behaviour in the long term (assuming it is classroom solutions that are needed for your particular cohort anyway.) 
I’ve attached a few extracts from my book on the pupil premium which talks about analysing FSM pupils’ needs. (I can’t really send over the whole book but if you did want it it’s on www.lkmco.org/shop). If you think that makes sense and want some support going through the process of analysing and planning then I may be able to help but I’m afraid I don’t feel a 45 min session on an INSET day would be the right setting to do that. 
On the other-hand, if there are particular areas you identify that your pupils have needs in and feel that specific solutions might be appropriate, then the Pupil Premium Toolkit links directly to CPD that focuses in on these areas. Their recommendations are based on the Good CPD Guide which could also be useful – since it will direct you to training that is particularly suited to your needs. To take just one example, from an initial look at your data, you appear to have a progress gap twice as large in English compared to Maths– which could suggest literacy might be a good place to start. The guide can help you find training that is particularly focused on that area rather than me trying to put forward a whole range of ideas and hoping something sticks. 

I know that’s probably not the answer you were looking for (or expecting) but I don’t think I could in good conscience take a load of money off your hands for something which I didn’t think was in the best interest of pupils. Whilst obviously it’s you who knows your pupils not me, the research on the subject of CPD and the lessons from schools where attainment gaps have been closed really is clear that a more strategic, long term and targeted approach is what will make the difference. 
Thanks again for getting in touch, I hope that’s at least a bit helpful and do let me know if I can do anything to help you and your pupils. 
Loic

I really hope the email has prompted some careful thinking about the school’s particular issues but it’s certainly not easy. My worry is that in a high stakes environment schools are feeling the pressure to find quick and easy solutions, when those may not be in pupils’ best interests. Sustainable change will require a much more complex approach.

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