Research School Network: The potential unintended consequences of developing an understanding of contextual disadvantage By Susan Fraser. Director of Manchester Communication Research School

The potential unintended consequences of developing an understanding of contextual disadvantage

By Susan Fraser. Director of Manchester Communication Research School

For many, one of the primary aims of the start of the new school year is to get to know the students; especially for new staff but also for existing staff who will be meeting their new classes or the new starters for the first time. This is fundamental for schools who are serving communities of significant economic or social disadvantage as they seek to understand and aim to mitigate against the complex challenges that many of our young people face on a daily basis.

This can sound easier than it is to achieve. To gain a deep understanding of disadvantage takes time, sensitivity, a collaborative and open approach to working with local partners, regular and honest communication with families and a professional body that is curious whilst being aware of pre-conceived assumptions and biases. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive to achieve it.

School leaders up and down country will have dedicated time during their initial staff meetings and INSET days to share contextual information about their school and probably the surrounding area, in an effort to share an understanding of some of the circumstances that the young people experience which could place them at a disadvantage to their peers.

Whilst it is clear that this is well-intentioned, one of the potential unintended consequences is that this can lead to or perpetuate a deficit narrative; put simply we understand disadvantage and that is a reason why some children will underperform in comparison to their peers’. In this case, disadvantage is seen as a reason or an excuse for an achievement and attainment gap and unfortunately, this is in fact, a huge misunderstanding of disadvantage.


Keeping standards high with an explicit focus on routines and behaviours

Understanding disadvantage does not mean that we lower our expectations and standards for behaviour, learning behaviours and engagement in learning. In fact, if we find ourselves doing this, even if that is with the intention of providing a nurturing environment, we can actually further compound the disadvantage faced by pupils. Nurture does not mean lowering expectations. At Manchester Communication Academy, we achieve high expectations by being clear, explicit, establishing and facilitating supportive routines. Both staff and students know how to navigate key points during the day and most importantly, why we do what we do. You can find more on this in the EEF Improving Behaviour Guidance Report.

Creating an environment where young people feel safe and interactions are based on mutual respect

The interactions that pupils encounter on a daily basis communicate to them their value, worth and potential. We make sure that pupils are greeted warmly by a whole host of staff when they first arrive in a morning. The same approach is integral on thresholds to classrooms; we are so happy to see them and are excited for what they can achieve! See The Great Teaching Toolkit. element 2 for more on this.

Does a focus on standards mean that interactions are negative or are these framed with warmth and respect? What does classroom talk look like? How often do your pupils get a chance to use their voice with confidence and with agreed mutual respect? Our focus for professional development at MCA this year is developing oracy in the classroom. We want to empower our students to know that their voice and their opinions can be agents for change.

Working in partnership with parents and families rather than assuming the role of fixer’

Understanding disadvantage does not mean that schools have to replace parents and carers in guiding, advising, nurturing and ultimately parenting their children. However, there is great strength and opportunity in schools working in partnership with families to provide holistic care and support for young people that will allow them to access and engage in learning. In the EEF Guidance Report Working with Parents to Support Learning’ Recommendation 1 advises Critically review how you work with parents’ and goes on to say be optimistic about the potential of working with parents.’ At MCA, we know our parents and families are an enormous asset to us; they know their children best and together we can agree on the best support to enable them to achieve.

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