Research School Network: Stepping up: 15 steps for ensuring disadvantaged pupils thrive 15 steps for ensuring disadvantaged pupils thrive

Stepping up: 15 steps for ensuring disadvantaged pupils thrive

15 steps for ensuring disadvantaged pupils thrive

Having had the privilege of visiting, and working with leaders, teachers and pupils in schools where pupils facing disadvantage are thriving, the following themes seem to stand out:

1) Commit to the principle that working with disadvantaged pupils is a privilege, not a problem to resolve.

2) Coalesce a culture and belief that all pupils, irrespective of background or starting point, can attain well and thrive in wider school life.

3) Understand low family income and its impact on opportunity, child development and health. Understand the impact of low family income on children inside school and out.

4) Agree, as a school, that low family income should never be a barrier to opportunity in the classroom and wider school life. Family income should never be an obstacle to accessing all that school has to offer.

5) Never lower expectations based on a family’s ability or capacity to support learning. Family capacity to support a child’s education should not impact on our ambitions for pupils.

6) Labels should not determine activity. Adopt a more nuanced, learning led approach:


7) Labels should not be used as a reason for underachievement. Dig deeper. See this recent blog on Pupil Premium and SEND’ for more:

8) Assessment, not assumption should always be at the heart of every strategy. Providing meaningful, actionable data to teachers and curriculum / pastoral leaders is key.

9) Recognise that pupils are largely consistent in their behaviours, actions and attitudes (even when their actions aren’t quite in line with our expectations!). All too often, we, the adults, are the variable. This might be in relation to strategic issues such as staff recruitment and staff wellbeing. It may be more day-to-day issues such as staff attendance, behaviour management, relationships, formative assessment. The most effective strategies give staff the capacity, expertise, knowledge and support to help pupils to thrive.

10) Focus on high leverage issues that benefit and support all learners: self-regulation, oral language, background knowledge and reading. Most roads lead back to reading if we are to improve pupils as learners and help them to thrive. See lesson planning and enactment through the lens of disadvantaged pupils.

11) Use tutoring and intervention to supplement, not supplant high quality teaching. Successful interventions should see gains sustained back in the classroom. Recognise the pitfalls with intervention. Interventions fail when there are / is:
- interventions that look for pupils (rather than rooted in pupil need)
- an over reliance on pre and post tests (without control groups or an analysis of whether gains are sustained)
- poor transitions to / from lessons you missed the input… just do your best!’
- curriculum narrowing / social isolation – there is an academic and social risk when pupils leave class for interventions
- confused accountability
- mixed quality and expertise of staff leading interventions
- disconnection from the curriculum (especially with chopping and changing: we don’t want pupils to miss the same thing’. It may well be better to be consistent and clear).

12) Don’t ignore personal development as a key strand of an effective strategy. High quality careers opportunities are often not available to pupils from lower income backgrounds. See this recent report from Speakers for Schools in the TES:

13) Ensure any focus on attendance is rooted in the drivers of poor attendance, not the symptoms. More on this here: Recognise that relationships are a key driver of social development.

14) Recognise that any work with families should be targeted, clearly defined, achievable and rooted in a strength-based discourse. Recognise that the evidence about effective parental involvement changes depending on the ages of pupils:


15) Dispassionate impact evaluation is key to better outcomes for pupils. We are not trying to prove we are successful – we are trying to understand whether they are working.

It is a huge privilege to be involved in this work – a unique opportunity to significantly help shape the trajectory of the lives of young people. Not so that they can escape their communities, but to improve them. We are the changemakers.

Marc Rowland – Unity Research School Assistant Director, Unity Schools Partnership, April 2024.

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