The Knowledge

What makes some schools succeed in closing disadvantage gaps?

New research into pupil premium spending indicates some strategies may be more fruitful than others for under-resourced students

New research into pupil premium spending indicates some strategies may be more fruitful than others for under-resourced students

20 Jan 2024, 5:00

Across the UK, when it comes to poverty, the picture is stark. 3.9 million of our children are living in poverty. One million children live in households that are categorised as destitute, not able to meet the basic need to stay warm, dry, clean and fed. That means that in the average class in our schools nine pupils are living in poverty and two of these are destitute.

These figures manifest themselves in the experience of our teachers, children arriving at school hungry, dirty, and tired and understandably struggling to learn. Against this backdrop the education system has found the gap between these pupils and their peers stubbornly large and difficult to shift. But that’s not true for every school; there are some bright spots in our education system. So what can we learn from them?

The recent report from Close the Gaps used the Pupil Premium statements published by each school, alongside GCSE data to analyse the strategies used with the schools that had ‘closed the gap’ across 2021-23. It compared this cohort with schools who were the least successful.

The study used schools achieving progress in line or above national averages, with at least 25 per cent of pupils eligible for free school meals. All the schools researched were rated ‘good’ or above by Ofsted. The aim of the report was to promote ideas, discussion and to create further questions, driving forward our ability to close the gaps.

Schools characteristics

The cohort of successful schools had some clear differences with the average school across the country. They were all found in large cities or the southeast, all had higher-than-average numbers of students on FSM and higher-than-average numbers of students with English as a second language. They were also more likely to be a faith or single-sex school.

School spending

The pupil premium statements are broken down into three funding areas: teaching, targeted academic intervention and wider strategies. While total funding across our cohorts of schools was similar, the main difference between the most and least successful groups of schools was found in the balance of spending.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, those schools that closed the gap spent a greater proportion of their funds on the teaching strand, specifically on CPD and increasing the capacity of their teaching workforce.

Strategies for success

While the success of a strategy is often down to the way it is implemented, there were some interesting commonalities between the successful schools. There were some areas that appeared across most successful schools: investment in reading and literacy, pastoral and mental health support, explicit cultural capital and enrichment programmes, and a suite of practical support for pupils. They also used intervention outside school hours rather than within the school day.

Interestingly, schools in the successful cohort invested less in behaviour strategies. Not because behaviour isn’t important in the success of disadvantaged pupils, but possibly because the successful schools were investing in the right systems to enable good behaviour: mental health, pastoral care and regulating activities like sport.

There was also a noticeable difference in investment in leadership. Very few successful schools invested in leadership across any area, while this was much more common with those with large gaps in progress. This could be evidence that this form of investment yields little improvement in outcomes, or it could be a mark of disparity in leadership capacity, which one group is trying to put right. More research is needed.

The report also outlines a range of other differences between the school groups: for example, successful schools fund school counsellors, SEND support and sports more than the others.

Finally, the report also includes some suggested strategies for reducing the barriers for disadvantaged young people. It includes a list of the schools involved, and a fruitful next step could be to visit one that matches your context to understand their practice more deeply.

Schools can’t solve poverty alone, but it is surely key that any funding available to them is spent where it is most likely to lower barriers, close gaps and improve life chances.

Download the report at

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  1. As usual, takes no account of the context of the schools involved. Or longer-term poverty.

    If “good” schools have a healthy potted plant, this does not mean that putting a plant in other schools will make them improve. This is not how causation (or research) works.