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Research School Network: Tackling Educational Disadvantage What have we learnt this term from working with schools leaders on this stubborn challenge?


Tackling Educational Disadvantage

What have we learnt this term from working with schools leaders on this stubborn challenge?

by Durrington Research School
on the

This term I have been fortunate enough to work with Marc Rowland and leaders across West Sussex, East Sussex and Kent on the stubborn challenge of tackling educational disadvantage. From doing this we have come to realise that the type of activity schools say they are working on to address this, is pretty similar across schools. The difference in terms of impact is determined by how effectively these strategies are implemented. This blog is an attempt to share some observations from our work with leaders this term.

1. The most successful schools appear to put most of their energy and efforts into things they can influence. It’s difficult for us to directly influence what goes on at home, but we can have a very strong influence on what takes place in our classrooms and the wider aspects of school life. So let’s focus on that.

2. These successful schools all have the highest expectations of all of their pupils. This is summarised brilliantly by the fabulous Claire Stoneman:

Because if we stoke the smouldering fire of poverty with the pernicious poverty of expectation, then we are perpetuating a cycle of poverty; we are actively complicit in expecting less of poor’ pupils. I wasn’t free school meals Claire Stoneman’ or poor Claire Stoneman’ or disabled parents Claire Stoneman’ when I was at school, although I could have been labelled all of them. I was simply Claire Stoneman, and great things were expected of me. I will be forever grateful to my school for that.”


3. Language deficit and a lack of metacognitive self-regulation are often cited as an issue for disadvantaged pupils. However, there is often a lack of a cohesive plan about how this will be addressed in the classroom. For example, if vocabulary deficit is perceived as a challenge, is there a consistent approach to the explicit teaching of tier 2 and 3 vocabulary across the school?

4. In the same way the presumption of language is problematic, so is the presumption of background knowledge. Children who haven’t been read to, read widely themselves and/​or experienced rich cultural experiences, will struggle to contextualise and make links to new learning. A lesson on theatre set design’ will be a mystery to those pupils who have never been to the theatre.

5. Alongside this, schools need to consider how teacher development will be supported to embed these approaches. The EEF guidance report suggests a focus on the mechanisms of effective professional development, framed around four key areas:

- Building knowledge
- Motivating teachers
- Developing teacher techniques
- Embedding practice

6. Evaluation of the impact of these new approaches is often weak. As a result, we can often overestimate the impact of these strategies or just focus on task-completion. As a rule, evaluation should:

- Focus on whether activity has been successful, and in what circumstances. Evaluate, don’t prove.
- Look for evidence of impact on pupil outcomes
- Put in place a robust evaluation framework at the start of the strategy. Set milestones.
- Ensure that the evaluation framework is transparent. Set out in advance
- Report on progress against that framework.
- Judge our success based on outcomes for disadvantaged pupils, not institutions.
- Decouple evaluation from accountability.

7. Too often, leaders attribute problems to a particular group or label e.g. PP, without thinking about the individual challenges for pupils. Instead of this approach, leaders should use diagnostic assessment (not assumption) to elicit the challenges to learning faced by their pupils in their school, as a result of socio-economic disadvantage. This should then shape your approach to tackling educational disadvantage.

8. A phrase we hear a lot is quality first teaching’. What does this mean though? Often leaders are unable to articulate what this looks like or unpick what it means for disadvantaged learners. So if metacognitive self-regulation is identified as a challenge to learning, how will teaching be shaped to support pupils with planning, monitoring and evaluating their own learning? Is there a shared language and understanding around inclusive and evidence-informed teaching in the school?

9. Tackling educational disadvantage is not the sole responsibility of the PP coordinator. It is the collective responsibility of every adult who works in the school. Everybody who works in the school should understand the part they play in the school’s pupil premium strategy.

10. There needs to be a shared vision across the school that sees the purpose of education as social justice through better attainment, irrespective of your background.

11. Bias exists in our education system, our schools and our classrooms. In his book Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman has evidenced that people exhibit bias in their professional lives, often without being conscious of it. During interactions with particular pupils from particular backgrounds – or indeed, in interactions with labels such as low ability’, Pupil Premium’ and Pupil Premium and SEND’ – our biases can emerge. Our biases can also emerge where we have positive perceptions of parenting. The key to controlling bias is to be open about it. The greatest risk around bias is to deny that it exists. There’s another important message here about removing the deficit discourse about disadvantage.

12. We need to avoid using superficial solutions to complex problems. For example, making pupils for whom reading is already a challenge, read a book for 10 minutes every day is unlikely to support them in terms of becoming confident, passionate and fluent readers. It will probably just reinforce that they are not very good at reading. A longer term strategy that involves explicit vocabulary instruction, shared/​whole class reading, targeted reading interventions and developing a disciplinary approach to reading is more likely to support this.

13. Blaming poor attainment of disadvantaged learners on low aspirations’ is neither helpful nor accurate. The vast majority of young people, irrespective of their backgrounds, have high aspirations. The problem is that some won’t know the pathway to realising these aspirations or how to overcome the challenges that will make it hard for them to get there. This is where we need to focus our energy.

14. Relationships matter for a number of reasons, but especially in the context of feedback. Pupils are far more likely to take on board feedback about themselves as learners, when it comes from adults who are trusted by them and show a genuine interest in their learning.

To summarise, it’s about shifting our thinking. Away from:

What are the problems with our disadvantaged pupils?’


And more towards:

How can we better include all of our pupils in school life and challenging learning?’


To finish, here’s a quote from Marc:

Poorly identified challenges leads to poorly identified activity and weaker outcomes for disadvantaged pupils. Early intervention and inclusive teaching, focussed on need, enables these pupils to thrive in school.

Look to be as precise as possible. Centre in on the key things that are preventing disadvantaged pupils from attaining as well as they might. Academic and pastoral issues should be included. Developing pupils’ oral language, vocabulary, reading comprehension and metacognition are often at the heart of an effective strategy for addressing socio-economic disadvantage.”


Shaun Allison

Director of Durrington Research School

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