Research School Network: Through the Lens of disadvantage The importance of everyone seeing things in the same way

Through the Lens of disadvantage

The importance of everyone seeing things in the same way

by Greenshaw Research School
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Collective ownership of the problem and the strategy

The new Pupil Premium planning templates emphasise the importance of teaching and learning in school development. They reflect the EEF’s Tiered Model of School Improvement, with the majority of planned activities focusing on improving teaching and learning, with the remainder on targeted academic interventions and wider school approaches. Since we have most control over what happens in the classroom, it makes sense to direct the majority of our limited resources to developing the quality of our teachers.

Teachers, like everyone else, are driven by values and beliefs. A successful pupil premium strategy should therefore try to ensure that its teachers share the same values and beliefs as the school about educational disadvantage and how best to tackle it. This means appreciating the challenges of disadvantage within the school context and understanding exactly how the school’s strategy seeks to address them. Unless there is collective ownership over the problem and the strategy, what’s laid out on paper will not translate into the classroom.

The power of teacher agency

This is more than buy in’, which tends to imply casual acceptance. It reflects the need for a deeper appreciation by teachers of the agency they possess in bringing about change. It requires teachers to see that every day, in every interaction in class or around the school, they have countless opportunities to challenge and steadily overcome the effects of disadvantage. If teachers fail to grasp the importance of these moments – and not see them as vital in realising the wider vision – over time, nothing will change.

What’s required is seeing the potential impact of all the little things we do or don’t do through the lens of educational disadvantage. It means asking ourselves tough questions like, what will be the effect on my most disadvantaged students if I allow some to opt out of answering questions in class? Or, what might it mean for my most vulnerable learners if I don’t properly support them whilst they read a challenging text? It’s not so much a change of practice, as a change of focus. A reorientation towards those who will flounder without our support.

Such an approach shifts the attention towards seeing the impact of our actions on those that need us the most. It’s tempting to think we are making a difference when we look at our impact on the majority, whether that be as a teacher who only sees the students who get it in their lessons, or as a head of department or senior leader who celebrates healthy results but glosses over the underachievement of vulnerable groups within the headline figures.

What we do really matters for our most vulnerable

Seeing decisions through the lens of disadvantage sharpens our focus to where it matters most, without really taking anything away from anyone or anything else. What great teachers do in their lessons for those without rich vocabularies or extensive stores of background knowledge, for instance, helps all students. Similarly, the approaches the best teachers take to support weaker readers to monitor their comprehension better, takes nothing away from the more confident. The difference is that what is good for everyone, is absolutely vital for some.

This isn’t about singling out specific groups for special consideration. Pupil Premium is not a need, it is a label, and as teachers our job is to address the needs of the pupils in our care. This is why it’s mistaken to do things like prioritise pupil premium students’ books for marking, or sitting all the disadvantaged students in the same row so they can get support easily. There will be a myriad of needs within these groups, so one-size fits all just won’t work. Such an approach is at best misguided, at worst corrosive and at all times missing the point.

Looking through the lens of disadvantage means properly planning for the needs of the pupils in our classes, responding to what happens in lessons and resisting the temptation to simply move on. It means acting on data – in all its different quantitative and qualitative forms – to guide next steps. It involves spending more time thinking about how to help those who don’t get it, than what comes next for those that do. This may jar a bit, but it’s harder to react in the moment to students who are struggling, than extending those who are not.

Making sure it really happens

But, of course, it’s not just about how well we plan to meet our students’ needs, it’s also very much about whether we actually do meet them in our lessons through our teaching. The EEF uses the term Active Ingredients’ to refer to those factors in an intervention that must be in place for that intervention to have the intended impact. The same is true of pedagogy: there are certain aspects of giving good explanations, asking purposeful questions and providing high quality modelling that need to be present for it to be effective in helping students learn.

In every school there will be lots of examples of excellent teaching taking place, but where some of the students are still not really learning because the active ingredients’ of the pedagogical approach are missing. Whether it’s a history teacher asking great questions but only to the most able, or a maths teacher doing some superb modelling just to himself. We’ve all been there. We think we are teaching well, because most of the class are nodding along; most of the books contain decent answers; most of the students are on task in their groups.

We therefore need to be more honest about what’s working and what we need to change. It’s hard because teaching is tough and there is always more that we can do. This isn’t about beating ourselves up – it’s about being more objective and relentlessly using data from the minority to better evaluate our successes and identify areas for our improvement. It’s about seeing things through the lens of educational disadvantage, and acting upon what is really there, not what we want to see.

It’s about seizing those opportunities each and every day to make a difference.

Phil Stock
Director Greenshaw Research School

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