Can we close the attainment gap at Reception?

Reception pupils who make a slower start to learning often struggle to make up ground on their more successful peers. How can we reverse the trend, asks Megan Dixon
Early Years: How Can We Close The Attainment Gap For Disadvantaged Children?
Megan Dixon


Can we close the attainment gap at Reception?

Imagine a class of Reception children on their first day at school. They excitedly arrive; brand new uniform, smart shoes and clean noses.

By the first half term, it becomes clear to the teacher that some of the children are relishing their time in school. They eagerly soak up every new experience and their learning comes on at a ferocious pace. Keen to keep them moving, the teacher plans more challenging opportunities for these children and they thrive.

In contrast, there is another group of children who seem to find it hard to learn from the experiences in the class. Concerned for their progress, the teacher plans smaller, less challenging steps, and they often revisit and repeat learning activities. It becomes understood that they need to consolidate their understandings more and the perceived wisdom that these children are somehow less "able" and need additional support and continued guidance is assumed into the school's tacit understandings about how this class learns.

So far, so familiar for many teachers. But we need to challenge this narrative.

Learning to read and write

In 1986, Keith Stanovich published a paper in the psychology journal Reading Research Quarterly entitled "Matthew Effects in Reading: some consequences of individual differences in the acquisition of literacy".

In this paper, he suggested that the differences in the ease with which children learn to read and write may, in part, be due to their ability to learn from the experiences presented to them in the classroom.

Some children, he suggested, arrive at school without having had the opportunity to acquire the foundational pre-reading skills necessary. There might be a great difference in the levels of oral language competency, differences in physical development and the ability to hear and play with sounds in words. All these will affect how a child could access any learning opportunity presented to them.

The data Stanovich presented in support of his theory was convincing. He showed that although the perceived differences in the attainment of children as they entered schools was within normal ranges, these differences did have an impact on the progress of the children as they learned to read. The rich got richer, and the poorer made slower progress and the gap widened.

If we consider the fast progress of the successful learners in our Reception class through the lens of the Matthew effect, it becomes clear that the children are not in some way more able - instead they are better able to learn from and within the classroom.

It is easy to see how even the age of a child can lead to the Matthew effect contributing to lower attainment. When they start school in Reception, a child who was born in September has had a whole year's worth of experiences and opportunities to learn in comparison with some of their summer-born peers. Meanwhile, a child who has not had rich and varied life experiences may be at a disadvantage in learning.

What would happen if we made sure we provided the most opportunities to those who have the most to learn, provided the most skilful teachers to them and sought to implement the interventions and programmes that will accelerate progress and close the gaps?

How we can turn the tables on the Matthew effect?

Megan Dixon is a senior associate at the Education Endowment Foundation and director of English/co-director of the Aspirer Research School

This article originally appeared in the 29 November 2019 issue under the headline "How can we mind the attainment gap?"

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