Research School Network: Disadvantaged learners in our schools are not a ​‘problem’ to be solved. They are part of our school community and it’s for us to get better at what we do. Disadvantaged learners in our schools are not a ​‘problem’ to be solved.


Disadvantaged learners in our schools are not a ​‘problem’ to be solved. They are part of our school community and it’s for us to get better at what we do.

Disadvantaged learners in our schools are not a ​‘problem’ to be solved.

School culture and climate

  • The most effective strategies for supporting disadvantaged learners focus on giving teachers and wider staff the capacity, expertise anddevelopment to meet the needs of their learners. To improve them as learners and help them to thrive in wider school life. Teacher and wider staff agency and buy-in are fundamental to success.
  • Developing culture is a continuous process, not an event. It should not be thought of as something to be achieved’.
  • A shared language around efforts for supporting disadvantaged learners is vital. From governance to the classroom to external support, staff should speak with one voice. Belief in learners matters.
  • Schools should be outward facing, engaging and being challenged by research evidence.
  • Recruitment and retention of high-quality staff, with expertise in the challenges faced by disadvantaged learners is key. Learners need maximum opportunities to work with high quality, committed and stable staff.
  • Priorities for disadvantaged learners should not be separated from school wide priorities.

High expectations

  • All schools and staff should have the highest expectations of all learners. They should understand and be empathetic to those who, for any number of reasons, may find it more difficult to engage with school life.
  • For multiple, complex reasons, some may find learning more difficult. Be mindful of not lowering expectations and aspirations for disadvantaged learners. Nurture and support all learners to take pride in their individual achievements. Learners’ contributions to lessons and wider school life should be encouraged and valued.

Needs, not labels

  • Disadvantaged learners should not be treated as a homogenous group. Labels can create unconscious bias and set limitations on what learners can achieve. Strategy and activity should always focus on pupil need.
  • Employ a proactive approach, anticipating future challenges and addressing them through early intervention. Early intervention is what we do in the moment, at the start of the school year… it’s about caring and responding to the day to day experiences of disadvantaged pupils in the classroom and in wider school life. Early intervention is not just about Early Years or Year 7.


  • Efforts to support learners will stand or fall based on the quality of relationships we forge. Relationships between adults and learners, and between learners matter. To be successful, learners will need to feel like they belong in our schools and in our classrooms.
  • Multiple studies – including the work of David Osher1 have shown that where relationships across schools are strong, the most disadvantaged learners will thrive. Learners do well when teachers know them well and hold them in high regard.

Relationships between adults matter too.

Rowena Lucas from the Ramsbury English Hub says: Good relationships should enable open, reflective discussions about the quality of the learning experiences of all of learners in our schools’.

Relationships should enable open, reflective discussions about the quality of personal development and pastoral care. They should enable discussions about any targeted academic support. Any interventions’ where learners are away from the classroom and their peers should be of exceptionally high quality, be rooted in research evidence and be a better learning experience than business as usual’.

Colleagues should work together, engage in conversations that may feel challenging, for the benefit of learners.

Staff with the privilege of influencing the education of our disadvantaged learners have to be their champions every day. They are voice and an advocate for those learners in all aspects of school life.

Meaningful assessment

Diagnostic and formative assessment should shape strategy and activity, not labels. Taking time to ensure assessment is meaningful and useful to teachers and leaders.

Schools should ensure that assessment is used to adjust teaching responsively. This enables staff to respond to, and address, gaps in learning. Learners then develop belief in themselves through experiencing success in the classroom and in wider school life. This helps them to become successful learners.

Assessment, not assumptions, should inform our approaches. Properly understand the impact of vulnerability on learning. Poorly identified need leads to poorly identified activity, which leads to weaker results and initiative fatigue. It can lead to a Supermarket Sweep’ approach to supporting learners. To quote Margaret Mulholland, We need to be experts in our learners, not experts in labels’

Actions: Teaching and Learning, Targeted Academic Support, Personal Development, Pastoral Care

Teaching and learning

Teachers and other staff should have a shared understanding of the components of inclusive quality first teaching, specific to their subject and phase. Subject and phase leaders should ensure that their daily practice, and that of the teachers in their teams, is inclusive and high quality for all. There should be memorable, joyful learning experiences in which all learners, particularly the disadvantaged, are expected and encouraged to participate.

Activity might include:

  • Professional development for teachers and other classroom practitioners, focused on assessments of need.
  • Recruiting and keeping specialist teachers. Disadvantaged learners may be disproportionately impacted by a high turnover of staff or difficulties in recruitment, as well as inconsistencies in expectations, relationships or knowledge of prior learning / experiences.

Targeted academic support

This might include:

  • Evidence-based interventions, such as the Nuffield Early Language Intervention.
  • Small group/one-to-one tutoring.
  • Academic interventions to improve reading that can also be adopted in first wave teaching. Academic intervention should supplement high-quality teaching, not replace it.

Any academic interventions should help improve learners as learners. They should be linked to diagnostic assessment and teacher expertise. Be wary of interventions looking for learners, rather than interventions that meet the needs of the learner.

The effectiveness of any intervention should be measured by how any gains are sustained in day-to-day learning. Be wary of the pre and post-test fallacy, where learners make great strides, but the impact falls away. This links to dispassionate impact evaluation.

Personal development

High quality enrichment opportunities may have a disproportionate impact on learners may lack opportunity outside of school. It is important to ensure learners feel included and that families are supported.

School leaders should be intentional about disadvantaged learners being included in student leadership opportunities and playing prominent roles representing school in sports, music, community work. Positive experiences at school lead to motivation and belonging.

Careers education should start early and be of high quality. The quality of careers education (especially work experience) should never be limited to personal connections.

Every moment in school matters. Family dining at the University of Cambridge Primary School builds friendships, increases social interactions, promotes equity and is a joyous shared experience for adults and pupils alike.

Pastoral care

High quality pastoral care is not an optional extra. It is a fundamental to success. As with academic learning it is important that assessment, not assumption, drives any strategic and operational approaches and that practices are high quality, rooted in evidence.

Personal development and pastoral care should never be an afterthought.

Implementation and coherence

The quality of implementation should be as important as the activities and approaches chosen. Poor implementation is likely to lead to weaker outcomes. Prioritising and doing a small number of things well leads to shared ownership and understanding, gives time for approaches to be embedded and avoids initiative fatigue. Implementation should be treated as a process, not an event.

Always consider some of the things that may go wrong before any implementation. Over optimism is a consistent feature of failed initiatives. We should be enthusiastic about what we might achieve, but sceptical about how much we can sustain.

Bad luck’ has a greater impact when implementation is poorly thought through, or if the climate is not right. Jon Eaton from Kingsbridge Research school writes in detail about this here:

Dispassionate impact evaluation

A robust process and impact evaluation framework should be adopted at the start of a strategy’s implementation to enable school leaders to accurately assess its effectiveness. Changes and adaptions can then be made to practice and to the strategy where necessary.

High-quality impact evaluation is fundamental to better outcomes for disadvantaged learners.

Impact evaluation is about finding out whether activities and strategies have been successful, and why. It is not about proving that strategies and activities have been successful or finding evidence to justify decision-making. It is important to decouple evaluation from accountability. Trying to prove an approach has been successful is detrimental to improved outcomes.

A video picking out some of the themes in this article can be found here:

David Osher, Pamela Cantor, Juliette Berg, Lily Steyer & Todd Rose (2020) Drivers of human development: How relationships and context shape learning and development1, Applied Developmental Science, 24:1, 6 – 36, DOI: 10.1080/10888691.2017.1398650

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