Brilliant Club

How can schools and universities work in partnership to raise attainment for less advantaged students?

15 Jun 2022

Authors: Hannah Thomson (Research and Evaluation Officer) & Dr Lauren Bellaera (Chief Impact and Strategy Officer)

In access and outreach work, raising attainment is a vital mechanism for enabling more young people from all backgrounds to progress to university. The latest statistics show that the university progression gap is growing, with students in receipt of free school meals (FSM) less likely to progress to university than their peers. Furthermore, analysis suggests this gap can be entirely explained by the difference in GCSE attainment between students from poorer and richer backgrounds. This means that when students receive the same number of higher-grade GCSEs, their chance of university progression is the same regardless of their background.

Concerns over the attainment gap are reflected in recent government policy for both schools and universities: the Levelling Up White Paper has set ambitious targets for increasing GCSE grades in English and maths, and the Office for Students has called upon universities to work with schools to raise attainment. At The Brilliant Club, we already run our Brilliant Tutoring Programme as part of the National Tutoring Programme and are looking to develop a more sustained attainment intervention, which is created in collaboration with school and university leaders.

To understand how we can best support schools, we need to connect the research evidence with education practice. In what follows, we summarise the research on attainment raising approaches and present key insights from school leaders about how schools and universities can work in partnership to increase the attainment of less advantaged students.

Key findings from the research evidence

The Brilliant Club’s research and impact team has conducted a review of the research evidence to understand what the best ways to raise attainment in schools are. We consulted the Education Endowment Foundation’s (EEF) teaching and learning toolkit, TASO’s rapid review on attainment-raising activities, as well as relevant meta-analyses and studies from the wider literature. Drawing upon this evidence, we identified three key approaches to raising attainment that have a moderate to high impact on attainment. The approaches are: academic tutoring, meta-cognition, and study strategies.

Academic tutoring

Academic tutoring is frequently used in schools to raise attainment and has been found to improve outcomes consistently and substantially in both reading and maths. According to the EEF, one-to-one tutoring can lead to 4-6 months of additional progress in reading and maths, and small group tutoring 2-4 months. While one-to-one tutoring has a higher impact on attainment than small groups, the quality of the tutoring is possibly more important than the number of students. Experienced and trained teachers are most effective at raising attainment through tutoring, but positive effects are also found for trained tutors who are not teachers. Tutoring delivered by university students has a stronger impact when there is a positive relationship between tutors and their students. This relationship can be established by working collaboratively with school students as equals, rather than taking a top-down approach. The content of tutoring is also important, and sessions should be clearly linked to the curriculum and tailored to students’ learning gaps. Tutoring is most effective when it is delivered in short, regular sessions over a set period of time, and therefore lends itself well to a university-led intervention.


Beyond improving students’ subject knowledge through tutoring, it is important to support their ability to study effectively, or their meta-cognitive skills and knowledge. Meta-cognition describes the way learners monitor and direct their own learning, including knowledge of learning strategies and the ability to regulate cognitive processes. There are three main components to meta-cognition:

  1. Planning: setting learning goals, identifying relevant prior knowledge, selecting appropriate study strategies, and allocating resources (e.g. time, study materials).
  2. Monitoring: using self-testing to monitor learning.
  3. Evaluation: appraising the outcomes and processes of one’s own learning.

According to the EEF, improving students’ meta-cognition has the biggest positive effect on attainment of all the approaches reviewed in the toolkit, leading to as much as 8 months’ additional progress in attainment. This finding is supported in the wider literature, with a meta-analysis of over 50 international studies concluding that there is a significant positive relationship between teaching meta-cognition in schools and student outcomes. A study of primary, secondary, and university students suggested that meta-cognition accounts for 14% of learning performance.

As there is some evidence that students from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to use and develop meta-cognitive strategies, it would be particularly beneficial to provide these students with additional support. In practice, students’ meta-cognition can be improved by explicitly teaching meta-cognitive study strategies, using guided practice to embed them, and modelling them during teaching. We know that meta-cognition is best developed through a whole school curriculum approach, and beyond this meta-cognition needs to be cultivated through concrete mechanisms, such as study strategies.

Study strategies

To decide which study strategies will help students raise their attainment the most, we looked at the extensive research that has been conducted into the science of learning. Four approaches in particular, with a strong evidence base, tell us both when and how students should learn: study activities should be spread out over time (spaced practice), different kinds of problems and topics should be mixed across and within study sessions (interleaving), we should practice retrieving information from our long-term memory (retrieval practice), and elaborate on this information by questioning how and why things work (elaborative interrogation). Despite this evidence, some studies show that school and university students alike frequently do not make use of the most effective study strategies. Interestingly, there is also evidence showing that teachers would like more support in this area.

Insights from school leaders

As raising attainment happens first and foremost in schools, we spoke to a group of six school leaders as part of a roundtable discussion about their views on how universities can best support schools to achieve this goal. Alongside the school leaders, we were also joined by a senior representative from one of our university partners.

From the discussion, it was clear that there is no silver bullet for raising attainment in all students as many complex factors contribute to a student’s achievement. However, supporting students to effectively engage with and make use of study strategies was identified as beneficial to attainment outcomes, especially for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

University students bring the spark

School leaders highlighted that universities can make a positive impact by providing school students with an experience of what learning and being at university would be like. They described how they had seen student-university interactions to be particularly impactful and motivational if their students could see themselves represented in the university students they came across, and therefore felt that current students were people like them. The background and gender of university students and staff delivering university outreach programmes is therefore an important consideration. This was also echoed by the university representative who spoke about the importance of galvanizing the student body by supporting university students to be near-peer role models.

In terms of attainment, school leaders and teachers particularly valued the passion and in-depth knowledge that university staff and students can bring to schools. This can inspire students to want to pursue a university education and help them be able to articulate their interests. Often this kind of support is provided for students who are already mid to high attainers, to increase their chances of getting into university if they are close to achieving the required grades. However, school leaders pointed out that mid to high attainers already receive a lot of input at school in higher sets. Universities should therefore give careful consideration to whether they work with low, mid, or high attainers, or a mixture and ultimately their reasons for engaging different learner groups.

Subjects and timing matter

School leaders also discussed which subjects universities can best target attainment-raising support at. The biggest grade disadvantage gaps for popular GCSE subjects in 2020 were in combined science, music, geography, maths, and history. Attainment-raising programmes often focus on maths and English, as these are core curriculum subjects and open up many A-level and university subject options for students. Considering how universities can add additional value to these core subjects will be important, as well as considering what support is needed for other subjects beyond maths and English.

One school leader shared that they had found additional support at GCSE had a much bigger impact in maths than English, as difficulties in English begins much earlier than GCSE, for example due to having English as an additional language. Evidence suggests that providing tutoring in reading is more effective in primary school and maths tutoring is more effective in secondary school. Further, the disadvantage gap is already evident in primary school. A question for universities developing attainment raising programmes is therefore at which key stage they would like to introduce attainment raising support.

Logistics and delivery

In practice, it can be challenging to engage students in longer-term interactions such as an outreach programme at school and ensure their consistent attendance, particularly lower attaining students with low school engagement. This can be made more difficult by running a programme entirely online, so universities should work closely with schools to decide whether sessions should be delivered in person, online, or as a hybrid model. It is important that students feel they are taking part in something different than their usual school day and that a positive relationship is built from the beginning.

Central to this positive relationship is the engagement of teachers, as they will ultimately make it possible for universities to support students. However, it can be difficult for teachers to find capacity to take advantage of the opportunities on offer from universities. The discussion highlighted that schools with a higher number of disadvantaged students are often disproportionately affected by this, and that it can therefore be helpful for universities to fund staff based in schools to help them make use of university outreach programmes. Schools and universities working in close collaboration can help ensure that an attainment-raising outreach programme is not simply tacked on to the school day but woven into the work of the school and the university.

Raising attainment: Where next?

When working together to raise attainment, schools and universities can draw on a wealth of existing evidence on attainment-raising approaches. Improving meta-cognition and study skills and providing academic tutoring are well-evidenced effective approaches in schools. However, the context in which an outreach activity is delivered will have an impact on its effectiveness. Therefore, attainment initiatives should be piloted and adjusted in schools before being fully rolled out.

In general, the access and outreach sector has a good sense of ‘what works’ to raise attainment, but the real test is being able to successfully implement these approaches in practice. Strong relationships between schools and universities are therefore key. Involving schools in the creation of a programme will help universities understand the context they are working in and better address the needs of the students. The importance of context applies both at the school and community level, meaning that a programme may have to be flexible and look slightly different in different localities. Lastly, a programme can only be effective at raising attainment if students are engaged in it. Schools will have the most insight into the best ways to build a positive relationship with their students.

To conclude, raising attainment for less advantaged students is and should be a collaborative endeavor between schools and universities, and there are already very clear indicators from the research literature about what approaches are likely to be effective for students. To practically move the access and outreach sector forward in the attainment space, strong working relationships between schools and universities are needed so that evidence-informed attainment initiatives can be tested in local contexts with the students that need the support the most.

Many thanks to the roundtable attendees who contributed the ideas explored in this blog: Chris Tomlinson, Graeme Pedlingham, Jan Balon, Jan Shadick, Kate Reid, Les Hall, and Sarah Cullen.

You can find out more about The Brilliant Club’s evaluation and consultancy services here.