Education Endowment Foundation:Closing the attainment gap – new EEF report reveals stark challenge

Closing the attainment gap – new EEF report reveals stark challenge

New analysis of the attainment gap published by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) alongside its annual report
Press Release •4 minutes •

There will be little or no headway in closing the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their classmates in the next 5 years – but there is still an opportunity for secondary schools to make a difference. That is one of the key findings of a new analysis published today by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) alongside its annual report.

Today’s analysis uses data from Key Stage 2 to predict how the attainment gap is likely to shift in the next five years. Improvements in primary schools over the past few years means that the gap between the proportion of disadvantaged pupils with at least a good pass in English and maths and all other pupils is set to reduce from 24 percentage points (ppts) to 21.5 between 2017 and 2021

However, for Attainment 8 – which measures average achievement in GCSE across eight subjects – there will be no change: the attainment score gap of 11 points in 2017 will remain in 2021. For Progress 8 – which measures students’ progress between Key Stage 2 and Key Stage 4 across eight subjects – the attainment gap is set to increase a little: from 14.8ppts in 2017 to 15.6 in 2021.

The report notes that, as this forecast is based on Key Stage 2 results, there is opportunity for secondary schools to make a difference. For instance, ensuring disadvantaged pupils are entered for the same number of subjects as all other pupils would lower the forecast gap in Attainment 8 scores from 10.8 points to 8.8 in 2021, a significant reduction

The report also highlights how the attainment gap is not just problem for schools assessed by Ofsted as under-performing. While GCSE grades for all pupils are higher in schools with Ofsted ratings of Outstanding’ or Good’ than in those rated Requires improvement’ or Inadequate’, the size of the Attainment 8 gap is consistent across all four types of schools

The report looks at the state of the attainment gap in England on a range of measures, collating existing research from a number of sources, in addition to the new analysis. It highlights that:

  • The attainment gap grows wider at every stage of education: it is already evident when pupils begin school, growing to 9.5 months by the end of primary school, and then more than doubling to 19.3 months by the end of secondary school
  • Even small improvements in young people’s GCSE qualifications yield significant increases in their lifetime productivity returns and in national wealth – highlighting the importance of continuing to focus on improving results for currently low-attaining pupils.
  • It is possible to narrow the attainment gap. In 10 per cent of primary schools and 8 per cent of secondary schools, disadvantaged pupils are doing better than the national average for all pupils. 
  • While a good level of funding for schools is important for a range of reasons – and some research suggests is particularly beneficial for disadvantaged students – there does not appear to be a direct and straightforward relationship between increased school funding and increased pupil attainment. What matters is how schools can effectively and efficiently use the resources they have (both financial and human) for maximum impact.

The report contains 15 key lessons on closing the attainment gap from the EEF’s first six years. They include the importance of early years education in closing the gap before it becomes entrenched; targeted small-group interventions for those at risk of falling behind; robust and rigorous evaluation of teaching and learning strategies; and sharing effective practice between schools (and building capacity for doing so) as key to closing the gap.

Sir Kevan Collins, Chief Executive of the Education Endowment Foundation, said:

Closing the attainment gap between poorer pupils and their classmates is our best shot at improving social mobility. So while it is good to see that primary schools’ hard work is likely to yield improvements in GCSE English and maths in the next five years, the slow progress in tackling the overall GCSE attainment gap shows there is a lot still to do

We know the attainment gap is not inevitable – in one in 10 schools disadvantaged pupils’ outcomes exceed the national average for all pupils – so secondary schools can make some important headway in boosting outcomes for the poorest students. Prospects for young people who leave formal education without good grades are bleak. But every extra grade gained can make a difference to their futures, as well as to our national economy. Today’s report highlights how important the better use of evidence is in all of this: looking at what has – and has not – worked in the past gives us the best chance of success in the future.”


  1. The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) is an independent charity set up in 2011 by the Sutton Trust as lead foundation in partnership with Impetus Trust (now part of Impetus – The Private Equity Foundation), with a £125m founding grant from the Department for Education. Since its launch the EEF has awarded £96.3 million to 160 projects working with over 1,000,000 pupils in over 10,000 schools across England. The EEF and Sutton Trust are, together, the government-designated What Works Centre for Education.
  2. The five-year forecast was undertaken by Education Datalab for the EEF. There is significant correlation between how pupils attain at Key Stage 2 (when they are 11) with how they attain at Key Stage 4 (when they are 16). To produce the forecast, Education Datalab used the correlation between KS2 attainment and KS4 total points (Attainment 8). As this forecast for 2017 – 21 is based on prior attainment at KS2, there is leeway for changes in secondary schools to make a difference.
  3. The rest of the data in the report has been collected from a number of sources, in particularly the Education Policy Institute, the Social Mobility Commission and the Department for Education.