This is an edited extract from the book, School and College Curriculum Design 3: Impact. For more information on this book and the first two in the series, as well as to access a raft of free curriculum resources, visit our Curriculum Central page.
The causes and consequences of disadvantage
Sadly, as much as I wish it were not so, we do not live in an egalitarian society and thus not all children are equal. They do not enter school equal, and they will not leave school equal. Whether we put this inequality down to nature or nurture, or perhaps, and as seems most likely to me, a nuanced combination of the two, we know that children start school with different levels of knowledge and skills and with different abilities and capabilities to know and do more.
No matter what we do to ‘level the playing field’, we are unlikely ever to do so. We can certainly improve awareness of the situation, and, above all, we can try to stop the gaps from widening as children travel through our education system. And we must truly believe in the transformative power of education and in our own capacities and – dare I say – duties, as educators, to improve the life chances of all those children in our charge including, perhaps especially, those who start their lives at a disadvantage. To think otherwise is to accept that a child’s birth will also be their destiny; that success or failure are preordained.
But, put simply, there are too many complex factors at play, and too many ingrained inequalities in society, for schools and colleges alone to close the gaps and achieve absolute equality. Here are my main concerns with the ‘closing the gap’ narrative…
Firstly, the phrase ‘closing the gap’ is, I think, the language of a deficit model. In other words, it focuses on what is missing and what is ‘wrong’ with some pupils, rather than on what differences exist and what we can do to help all pupils access and achieve within an ambitious curriculum.
It also encourages us to fall into the trap of assuming that there is such a thing as an ‘average’ pupil, a bell-curve against which we can plot ability and thus determine the ‘more able’ and the ‘less able’. And yet ‘ability’, if that is the right term, is far more complex than this. Let’s assume Pupil A is verbally articulate and yet struggles to commit their thoughts to paper whereas Pupil B struggles with oracy but is articulate when wielding the pen. Who is the more able and who is the less able of the two? Or imagine Pupil C is skilled at football but not so adept at cricket whereas Pupil D is a cricketing marvel but can’t dribble a football for love nor money. Who is the more able sportsperson?
Not only does a deficit model focus on what’s missing, it assumes that there are some more able, or higher-performing, pupils, and some less able, or lower performing, pupils. And yet ability – and indeed performance – is not binary. Some pupils will perform well in some subject disciplines but not others, and some pupils will perform better in some aspects of some subject disciplines but not others.
Every pupil is an individual and must be treated as such. We must not fall into the trap of thinking that Pupil A is disadvantaged and therefore is destined to fail. But nor should be assume that because Pupil A is deemed to be ‘disadvantaged’ and does indeed face some barriers to learning that they are uniformly less able to achieve in every unit and every subject they study in school and college and thus require additional interventions and support in order to ‘catch up’ with their peers.
Secondly, and related to this latter point, we are too obsessed, I think, with labels. Whether those labels pertain to socio-economic deprivation, such as Free Schools Meals (FSM) or Pupil Premium (PP), or to ethnicity and social status and gender, such as ‘white working-class boys’, or indeed to special educational needs and disabilities, such as ‘speech, language and communication needs (SLCN), they can be problematic.
I am not suggesting that labels have no place in education. They can be a useful shorthand and thus help us report on generic attainment gaps at whole-school and national levels. They can help us to identify trends and to tackle endemic discrimination. And, in the case of medical diagnoses such as dyslexia or autism, they can explain why a child finds some aspects of school-life more challenging than their peers and they can open doors to specialist support, and not least to the money with which to buy that specialist support.
Yes, labels have a place in our system. But the problem with labels arises when they are used by schools and teachers to determine expectations of what a child can achieve – or, more likely, cannot achieve – and to ascertain what additional support will be provided.
A further problem with labels, I would argue, is when those labels are used to describe a cohort of pupils and thus stereotype children. Labels can mask significant individual differences within a cohort. There is no such thing, for example, as a typical ‘Pupil Premium child’ or a typical ‘SEND child’. The mere notion is ridiculous. Every pupil is a human being, and every human being is different from every other human being in myriad ways. There may be some shared characteristics, of course; but labels lack nuance and lead us to assume that the problems faced by each child with the same label are exactly the same and that, as such, the solutions must also be the same.
Put simply, there is a difference between causes and consequences: The cause is the label. The consequence is what this means in practical terms for each child in each situation.
For example, the fact a pupil is eligible for the Pupil Premium – and thus is often labelled ‘Pupil Premium child’ – might tell you a little about their context. Perhaps they are eligible for free school meals and thus, you may know that they are categorised as living in poverty. But that, in and of itself, tells you little about what, if anything, they may find difficult at school and thus what you can do to help them. To help the child in school, we need to convert the cause, the label, into a consequence in order to better understand what the label means in practice. And the first point to make loud and clear is that it might mean absolutely nothing! Just because a child is eligible for free school meals doesn’t mean they are in any way academically disadvantaged at school. Likewise, just because a child is NOT eligible for free school meals does not mean that they are not academically disadvantaged.
Furthermore, a label does not mean that a pupil will be uniformly disadvantaged at school or college. Which is to say, that whilst a pupil may find some aspects of school more difficult than some of their peers, they are unlikely to find EVERY aspect of school difficult and may even find some aspects easier than most of their peers. Labelling pupils leads to lazy decisions. It was common some years ago – and still happens in some schools today – to demand that teachers label pupils eligible for the Pupil Premium on their registers, to design ‘strategic seating plans’ (whatever they are!) and to provide evidence of what they do differently for these Pupil Premium children.
Why? Such a practice only serves to discriminate against pupils, and to define pupils – and publicly brand them – as being ‘poor’ and thus ‘less able’ and in need of help. Being eligible for the Pupil Premium, as I have said, might mean absolutely nothing in terms of a pupil’s abilities in a subject or indeed in every subject. And even if it did, the generic ‘PP’ label tells us nothing about what to do.
The three-point plan
I have developed a three-point plan for supporting pupils with additional and different needs, including those eligible for the Pupil Premium as well as those with SEND, which is as follows:
Step 1: Identify the barriers – Before we can put in place intervention strategies aimed at supporting disadvantaged or vulnerable pupils, we must first understand why a gap exists between the attainment of disadvantaged pupils and non-disadvantaged pupils. In short, we need to ask ourselves: What are the consequences of disadvantage faced by my pupils? What barriers might their disadvantage pose in class? How does their disadvantage translate itself, if at all, in terms of their ability to access the ambitious curriculum I am teaching and to achieve in line with their peers?
Step 2: Plan the solutions – Once we have identified the barriers our disadvantaged pupils face towards learning, we need to plan the solutions. In so doing, we should ensure our strategies promote an ethos of attainment for all pupils, rather than stereotyping disadvantaged pupils as a group with less potential to succeed. We should take an individualised approach to addressing barriers to learning and emotional support and do so at an early stage, rather than providing access to generic support as pupils near their end-of-key-stage assessments. We should focus on outcomes for individual pupils rather than on providing generic strategies for whole cohorts. We should deploy our best staff to support disadvantaged pupils; perhaps develop existing teachers’ and TAs’ skills rather than using additional staff who do not know the pupils well. We should make decisions based on frequent assessment data, responding to changing evidence, rather than use a one-off decision point. And finally, we should focus on high quality teaching first rather than on bolt-on strategies and activities outside school hours and outside the classroom.
Step 3: Agree the success criteria – Once we have identified the barriers to learning faced by our disadvantaged pupils and have planned the best solutions to help them overcome these barriers, we need to be clear about what success will look like. We should ask ourselves: what do I expect to see as an outcome? What is my aim here? For example, is it to: Raise attainment; expedite progress; improve attendance; improve behaviour; reduce exclusions; improve parental engagement; or expand upon the number of opportunities afforded to disadvantaged pupils…? Whatever our immediate goal is, ultimately, we should be seeking to diminish the difference between the attainment of disadvantaged pupils in our school and non-disadvantaged pupils nationally, as well as narrowing our within-school gap. As such, if our initial aim is pastoral in nature, for example to improve behaviour and attendance, or reduce exclusions, then we must take it a step further and peg it to an academic outcome.
When interventions work best
When setting the success criteria, it’s important to consider the best individual approach. For example, evidence suggests that interventions work best when they are short term, intensive, focused, and tailored…
Short term – The best interventions help pupils to become increasingly independent over time. In other words, the scaffolds slowly fall away. Interventions should, therefore, be planned to run for a finite amount of time, ideally less than a term. Of course, if the evidence shows the intervention is working but that further improvement is needed, then the intervention can be extended, but to slate an intervention for a year, say, is often misguided.
Intensive – Similarly, interventions should be intensive, perhaps with three or more sessions a week rather than just one. And those sessions should also be intensive in the sense of being short, say 20 to 50 minutes in length rather than an hour or more.
Focused – Interventions should be keenly focused on a pupil’s areas of development rather than be generic. For example, rather than setting a goal of, say, ‘improving a pupil’s literacy skills’, an intervention strategy should be focused on a specific aspect of literacy such as their knowledge of the plot of Stone Cold or their ability to use embedded quotations in an essay.
Tailored – Interventions need to be tailored to meet the needs of those pupils accessing them. They must be as personalised as any classroom learning and not be ‘off the peg’ programmes. Assessment data should be used to inform the intervention and to ensure it is being pitched appropriately to fill gaps in the pupil’s knowledge.
Quality first teaching
Although intervention strategies can prove very effective, we must never forget that the best way to improve outcomes for pupils with additional and different needs is through quality first teaching because, if we improve the quality of timetabled teaching in the classroom, all pupils will make better progress.
A study by Hanushek and Rivkin (2006) found that teacher effectiveness had more impact on outcomes than anything else – pupils in the classroom of the most effective teacher out of a group of fifty teachers took just six months to make the same amount of progress that pupils taught by the least effective teacher out of fifty took two years to achieve – in other words, between the most and least effective teacher out of fifty, there was eighteen months’ wasted time.
What’s more, Hamre and Pianta’s research (2005) showed that, in the classrooms of the most effective teachers, socio-economic differences were null and void – in other words, pupils from the most disadvantaged backgrounds made the same progress as the least disadvantaged.
In Book Two of my series on School & College Curriculum Design, I argued that quality first teaching occurs when we introduce pupils to new curriculum content in four distinct stages:
Ultimately, though, whatever form it takes, ‘quality first teaching’ should ensure that all pupils, including those with additional and different needs:
- Are engaged – in the sense of being active participants in the process of learning not passive recipients of information
- Are highly motivated to learn and enthusiastic about learning
- Are challenged by hard work and know that making mistakes is an essential part of learning
- Receive effective feedback about where they are now, where they need to go next and how they will get there
- As a result of feedback, make progress over time and become increasingly independent and resilient learners.
Now visit our Curriculum Central page for more curriculum resources including a preview of Book Three.