Brilliant Club

Raising attainment: Taking an evidence-based approach to boosting academic achievement

14 Sep 2022

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

We know there are persistent gaps in attainment between students from advantaged and less advantaged backgrounds – 18% of students not eligible for free school meals attained 11 or more higher grade GCSEs (grade C or above or grades 4-9), compared with only 6% of those eligible[1]. We also know that the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated these disparities and as a result the attainment gap is widening and could take many years to close[2].

Lower school grades negatively impact participation and performance in higher education (HE)[3] as well as later life outcomes, including income[4] and wellbeing[5]. This is not just the case for grades at post-16, as performing well at GCSE is significantly associated with higher earnings later in life[6] and allows students to progress to higher levels of education[7]. For these reasons, it is important that the education sector works together to raise attainment for students from less advantaged backgrounds.

The need for the HE sector to take a leading role in supporting school attainment is reflected in the recent regulatory announcements from the Office for Students that states that universities need to demonstrate that their access and widening participation work is meaningfully contributing to raising attainment for underrepresented groups.

At The Brilliant Club, like HE institutions and many third sector organisations, we have been considering what our role should be in this space. In order to know where we can add the most value, we must first answer the following three questions:

We take each of these questions in turn using sector insights and evidence from the research literature. We hope that the reflections and ideas offered are useful for institutions and organisations who are thinking through their role in the attainment space.

What is attainment?

As with all cognitive processes, the meaning of the word attainment is in part defined by how it is measured. Performance on national exams, such as GCSEs and A-Levels drive a lot of people’s understanding of attainment. Often, educators discuss attainment in relation to the academic standard that students achieve in assessments and exams, or it is spoken about in terms of the progress made over a set period of time at school. But at its core, attainment is about demonstrating a set of knowledge and skills. This could be skills in numeracy and literacy or knowledge about scientific processes, whichever subject areas are specified within the curriculum. We think holding on to the knowledge and skills part is particularly important when navigating the attainment space – it is also why activities that are not directly related to the curriculum have been shown to have a positive impact on attainment[8].

How can we measure attainment?

One of the biggest concerns in the widening participation sector is how to evidence the impact of attainment-raising work. This is something that our research and impact team at The Brilliant Club has been exploring for quite some time – see our case study published in 2019 on this topic, and we think that the measurement of attainment can be helpfully understood using the following parameters:

At The Brilliant Club, our research and impact team is collaborating with the Centre for Transforming Access and Student Outcomes in Higher Education (TASO) and researchers at the University of Cambridge to develop validated measures for attainment-related outcomes. Further information about this project can be found later in the blog.

What activities and approaches raise attainment?

We reviewed the research evidence to understand the types of activities that support attainment and spoke to school leaders about what approaches they would find most helpful to supplement classroom teaching. A summary of the research and discussions can be found here. Reassuringly, there was a high level of overlap between what the evidence tells us is effective and what teachers say would be most beneficial for their students.

A popular and effective way to improve attainment is through tutoring. Evidence tells us that this can provide the equivalent of 5 months’ additional progress[9]. From the research, we also know that developing a positive relationship between tutor and tutee is a vital part of effective tutoring[10].

Moreover, research studies show that school students frequently do not make use of the most effective study strategies[11], and we know that there is a strong association between study strategies and academic attainment[12]. Therefore, using tutoring as a mechanism to enhance how students study is one evidence-based approach to raising attainment, and one that should continue to support learners beyond school and into university.

We have also heard from teachers that they would like more support in the application of cognitive psychology to classroom teaching, especially in terms of effective study strategy use[13]. In addition, activities that include both students and teachers are more likely to have a sustained impact[14].

When HE institutions and third sector organisations are delivering tutoring in schools, close collaboration is essential. From speaking to teachers, we know that they have a clear sense of where their students experience learning gaps and that they would like to have opportunities to co-create tutoring support. Further, developing a positive relationship with a school makes the sustainability of a tutoring programme more likely. Finally, teachers can provide valuable insights into how best to engage students in a programme. For example, one school told us their students had struggled with online learning, so in-person sessions would be preferred to get them on board with the programme.

At The Brilliant Club, we are taking these insights from the research as well as feedback from schools to create a programme that is designed to raise school attainment. This programme would measure both proxies for attainment and direct attainment outcomes. Further information about our new attainment programme can be found later in this blog.


Developing validated measures for attainment-related outcomes

A collaborative project

We are currently investigating proxy outcomes for HE access and success, and within that school attainment as a key predictor of progression, in collaboration with researchers at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge. This Centre for Transforming Access and Student Outcomes in Higher Education (TASO) commissioned project seeks to develop a series of validated questionnaire scales which HE providers can use to evaluate their outreach activities, by measuring student outcomes that are positively correlated with attainment and HE progression.

Progress to date

Over the past year, we have conducted a rapid review of the research literature, spoken to stakeholders from HE institutions and third sector organisations, and begun the validation process by speaking to students about their interpretation of our questionnaire scales. The scales will be further validated through statistical analysis of questionnaire responses, and we are collaborating with HEAT to release the final version on their platform in October 2022. Excitingly, this means there will be a standard set of validated scales easily available to the sector to support with evaluation.

The need for validation

Undertaking this project has highlighted to us the importance of validation: making sure that a questionnaire measures what it intends to measure. However, the confidence we can have in the validity of a questionnaire depends on how thorough the validation process was. For example, face validation means testing the clarity of questionnaire items with participants through interviews, whereas undertaking more complex statistical analysis can tell us if all the items consistently measure the same outcome. In this project, we are combining different validation techniques to assess the scales as thoroughly as possible.


Designing a model to support attainment

Guiding principles

Make Your Mark, our attainment model, is underpinned by the science of learning (i.e. teaching students how to learn). This approach is deep rooted in cognitive psychology and neuroscience and the application to classroom teaching is ever-growing in the UK. There is strong evidence that students, at all levels, don’t always use the most effective learning strategies to support their studies and teachers also report that they would like further training in this area. Therefore, our proposed model will bring together student-facing and teacher-facing components.

Programme delivery

In practice, Make Your Mark will consist of a series of small group tutorials focused on curriculum content that explicitly teaches study strategies. Example strategies include retrieval practice, spaced learning, and interleaving. The tutorials will be delivered by undergraduate students who will undergo both curriculum development and science of learning training before delivering the programme. Alongside this, we will deliver science of learning training to teachers at participating schools – the idea is that the application of these learning principles extends beyond the cohort of students that take part in the tutorials and can be further integrated into a whole school approach.

The pilot

We will pilot Make your Mark in Spring 2023 in collaboration with the University of Sussex.  The pilot will focus on Year 10 students in Maths and English subjects, as we know this is where we see some of the biggest attainment gaps. Students from less advantaged backgrounds will take part in twelve small-group tutorials (up to five students per group) across the Spring term with their undergraduate tutor. The tutorials will be a combination of in-person and online delivery. During this time, teachers at participating schools will also be invited to join the science of learning workshops.




[3] Crawford, C., Dearden, L., Micklewright, J., & Vignoles, A. (2016). Family background and university success: Differences in higher education access and outcomes in England. Oxford University Press.

[4] Farquharson, C., McNally, S., & Tahir, I. (2022). Education inequalities. Institute for Fiscal Studies.

[5] Raghupathi, V., & Raghupathi, W. (2020). The influence of education on health: An empirical assessment of OECD countries for the period 1995–2015. Archives of Public Health78(1), 1-18; Lee, K. S., & Yang, Y. (2022). Educational attainment and emotional well-being in adolescence and adulthood. SSM-Mental Health, 100138.

[6] Hayward, H., Hunt, E., & Lord, A. (2014). The economic value of key intermediate qualifications: estimating the returns and lifetime productivity gains to GCSEs, A levels and apprenticeships. London: Department for Education.

[7] Machin, S., McNally, S., & Ruiz-Valenzuela, J. (2020). Entry through the narrow door: The costs of just failing high stakes exams. Journal of Public Economics190.

[8] Perry, J., Lundie, D., & Golder, G. (2019). Metacognition in schools: what does the literature suggest about the effectiveness of teaching metacognition in schools?. Educational Review71(4), 483-500.


[10] Gartland, C. (2013). Marketing participation? Student ambassadors’ contribution to widening participation schemes in engineering and medicine at two contrasting universities. Journal of widening participation and lifelong learning14(3), 102-119.

[11] Dirkx, K. J. H., Camp, G., Kester, L., & Kirschner, P. A. (2019). Do secondary school students make use of effective study strategies when they study on their own?. Applied Cognitive Psychology33(5), 952-957.

[12] Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., & Willingham, D. T. (2013). Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques: Promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology. Psychological Science in the public interest, 14(1), 4-58.


[14] Perry, J., Lundie, D., & Golder, G. (2019). Metacognition in schools: what does the literature suggest about the effectiveness of teaching metacognition in schools?. Educational Review71(4), 483-500.