Tackling Educational Disadvantage

Imagine suddenly finding yourself in a new city, where everyone spoke a language you didn’t understand, and then be expected know how everything works and just get on as normal. This is how Marc Rowland asked us see the classroom through the “lens of disadvantage” during our INSET last Thursday. He highlighted that students are not at risk of academic underachievement because they are pupil premium, but they are at risk of lessening academic outcomes over time. We need to set pupils up for success but also to be aware of label-driven approaches to intervention – any approaches need to be learning-driven. Marc outlined a number of principles that we can use in our classrooms to do this.

First and foremost, we need to have high expectations. All students, regardless of background, should all have the same opportunities. We are not trying to “middle-class-ise” children, but we do not want any child to feel that certain careers or life plans are not for them. This means we need curriculum equity both inside and outside our classrooms.

Those who lack enrichment opportunities outside school tend to have the narrowest curriculum inside school. We at Durrington have a big focus on extra-curricular opportunities this year, and we have looked in detail at which students are attending our clubs. Every interaction is an intervention and it might just be a club that happens after school that makes the difference.

We also need to consider what is happening in our lessons. Do the language and experience-rich students dominate? This leads on to the next point which is that relationships are key. This is not about ‘high-fiving’ at the door, but about creating an atmosphere of equity where it is ok to fail and all students are confident to speak up. This is the “everyday” intervention and can make a huge difference. Feedback, so important for moving learning forward, is highly dependent on relationships. Students need strong self-efficacy and self-confidence in order to be able to take and act upon feedback, and they need to experience a sense of success for this to happen.

We need to understand our own school communities and try to unpick what is most preventing our disadvantaged students from attaining well. It is problematic to say that all is required is quality first teaching – it is crucial for us to unpick what we actually mean by this and also how we develop it, and link it directly to the needs of the disadvantaged in our care.

Bias can be a significant problem and again we are back to the use of labels of which there are a number in schools. As well as PP, we have SEND, and also often various categories of previous attainment – still unfortunately often referred to as “ability”.

Language of course is absolutely vital. Pupils will get through rather than participate in the lesson if they cannot understand. A child’s vocabulary aged five is crucial, and it is no surprise that children who read more have a better vocabulary, but the phrase “reading for pleasure” is problematic – for some this is an oxymoron. I was particularly reminded of the BBC’s recent programme following the struggles of TV presenter Jay Blades finally learning to read in his 50s. It is so important in our classrooms that we are always explaining, recapping, revisiting, and making every moment a language-learning moment.

Finally there is metacognition. “Don’t just celebrate the harvest, but also the planting, pruning, weeding”. Asking not just what a student knows but how they know it, and probing into the behaviours that are making them successful, will help to make these explicit to all children.

So back to the new city, language and culture of the first paragraph. We need to address the presumptions of language, background knowledge and learning behaviours in our classrooms and put ourselves in our students’ positions – how are we levelling the playing field for all of our students in our care?

Deb Friis

February 2022

Deb is a maths teacher at Durrington High School. She is also a Maths Research Associate for Durrington Research School and Sussex Maths Hub Assistant Lead.

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