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The expertise to close the attainment gap already exists in schools, so how do we capture it?

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James Richardson is a Senior Analyst at the Education Endowment Foundation. Here, he talks to us about the EEF's Families of Schools database. 

"In education, context is everything. What works in those schools, won’t necessarily work in our school."

This is a common view, voiced frequently in discussions I have with school leaders. Of course every school is unique, but there are more similarities between schools than differences. If we could capture what successful schools are doing to close the attainment gap from other schools in similar contexts, then we could identify what is most likely to work in our school.

This is the aim of the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF)’s Families of Schools database. It enables schools to compare their performance with equivalent schools across the country. By measuring pupil characteristics, levels of deprivation and additional languages spoken at the school, the interactive tool groups schools into ‘families’ that allow them to make meaningful comparisons with similar schools.

The Families of Schools tool provides the best available insight into the variation in school performance. It is a starting point for school leaders looking to understand their attainment gap, and provides a platform from which to challenge and support each other.

The EEF’s remit is to identify the most effective ways of improving the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers. In the last four years we have invested over £60m in pursuit of that aim, funding over 100 promising interventions and approaches. Two lessons stand out from our work so far:

  1. There are no silver bullets that will eliminate the attainment gap. Some approaches are showing consistently positive impacts, such as metacognitive teaching techniques and the use of structured interventions for teaching assistants. Still, other things seem to be harder to make work effectively, such as interventions that focus on reading for pleasure.

  1. The expertise to close the attainment gap already exists in classrooms around the country. The best run EEF projects and the most promising interventions are led and delivered by schools. Often they are interventions that have been running for years, but have not had the resources for a robust evaluation. Schools understand that it is not just a case of doing 'something extra' to close the attainment gap, but it is about the thoughtful planning, delivery and evaluation of it.

I think these are exciting lessons to learn - they have potentially huge implications for the teaching profession. Of course we must continue to understand more about effectiveness in schools, but we don’t need to look for the ultimate gap-closing intervention. Instead, we must point schools towards the most promising approaches, and help schools become better at evaluating the techniques in their context. The Families of Schools is one piece of the jigsaw to help spread this knowledge around the system and help schools learn from each other.

Secondary schools in The Families of Schools database can be accessed here: Primary schools will be available later in the year.

Further reading to help

If you're a member of our site for school leaders, you can have a look at our new guide on using evidence to improve teaching and learning in your school. It's written in collaboration with academics from King's College London and Durham University.

We've also worked with the EEF to produce Evidence Digests - one page summaries of research into different teaching and learning strategies. So far, you'll find a page on grouping by ability and another on reducing class size (log in required).

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