Review by Anita Kerwin-Nye

25 Mar 2018, 5:00

Narrowing the Attainment Gap, by Daniel Sobel

Any book that starts by extolling the virtues of soft data and knowing the children in your school will always win points with those of us who focus on inclusion.

This, coupled with the view that whole-school approaches and quality teaching are key to transforming provision, sees this book describe an approach that I recognise and value.

If you are a fan of zero-tolerance behaviour strategies, on the other hand, it’s possibly not the book for you.

It focuses on how knowing a child lets you adapt school practice, with the understanding that behaviour is underpinned by communication and context.

Split into three sections, it’s a handbook for anyone considering the attainment gap in schools, and combines a summary of the evidence with practical tactics and a summary strategy that could be used by schools undertaking pupil premium or other reviews.

Sobel draws on both the evidence base and his own experience as a consultant to pull together potential reasons for the attainment gap and obstacles to addressing it.

In this, it is pleasing that he challenges the prevailing narrative that schools can do it all themselves. While his evidence is a little oversimplified, the opening chapters are a useful read for anyone wanting an introduction to the various factors affecting disadvantage.

It struck a sensible balance between quick wins and long-term school development

I found the continued focus on wellbeing, mental health and knowing the child useful – while also acknowledging the challenges this can put on busy teachers.

The opening section on virtual schools and children in care was particularly helpful.

The middle chapters provide a range of useful tools, exercises and questions that schools could use to develop their own practice – either as a one-off approach or as part of wider plan for narrowing the gap.

The sheer volume of advice and ideas makes it a little overwhelming and, in a world where teachers are drowning in forms to fill, it could feel a little paperwork-heavy. But Sobel reiterates the point that tools must work for the school and its teachers, rather than be slavishly reproduced. Perhaps using more of the highlighted “key takeaway” points deployed in the later chapters might have helped time-poor teachers with their navigation.

I rarely see any work that helps schools consider the cost-benefit analysis of interventions around disadvantage – particularly financial costs – and the chapter on interventions could usefully be expanded into other publications. Indeed, Sobel’s recurring point on how whole-school approaches and having the right person do the right piece of work can actually help reduce costs is a really positive message in the prevailing financial climate.

Sobel speaks openly about his own experiences of school

Most pleasingly, it included the fact that sometimes interventions are not what you expect: valuing residentials, investment in staff training, etc.

It also struck a sensible balance between quick wins and long-term school development.

Real case studies are always helpful, and it is good to see how schools have adapted and used the approaches in the book. It would have been useful to see more case studies and evidence from those beyond Sobel’s consultancy clients, however, to show how the tools can be used by others without the need for his team’s input.

My main criticism is that the tone of the book sometimes grates.

Throwaway comments that most pupil premium reviews aren’t done well, that SENCO training isn’t fit for purpose and so on are delivered in a way that feels unnecessarily critical of the work of others, and it doesn’t fit with the wider, more measured tone of the book.

Sobel speaks openly about his own experiences of school and this has clearly influenced his pathway and the change that he wants to make.

He has made a heartfelt contribution to the very real issues that we as a community have in addressing the needs of children and young people most in need of our support and I welcome this addition to the cause.

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