Dealing with Disadvantage

In her latest guest post Zoe Enser (@GreeboRunner) grasps the thorny issue of the disadvantage gap.

There is no doubt that, had I been born in the last 30 years, I would have at some point in my education fallen into the Pupil Premium category. By postcode alone, I was living in an area of disadvantage in a new town council estate, I would have been considered someone who would have struggled to succeed educationally. My dad had left Wales an illiterate labourer in the early 1950s and my mum earned her early living picking peas or pulling potatoes on local farms, before becoming a cleaner. Certainly the odds for academic success seemed to be stacked against me. However, a desire for their children to get the education which they didn’t have, an older brother who paved the way to University and a tendency towards intellectual curiosity and frustration, more or less kept me on an academic path, with a passion for learning which has yet begun to fade.

The four schools I have taught in over the last eighteen years have all been schools with a higher than average percentage of ‘disadvantaged’ students. Some cohorts were made up of nearly fifty percent of students identified as PP. The actual number of students experiencing significant financial disadvantage is of course even higher, with those who don’t quite ‘fit’ into the category falling off of the figures. There are then of course the ones who simply would not want to divulge this type of information to the school; my mum would have been horrified if people looked at us as ‘poor’ or disadvantaged in any way.

It is not surprising that the topic of disadvantaged or ‘PP’ students has been frequently discussed at various levels in my schools.  How can we ensure that this group of students don’t fall behind their more ‘advantaged’ peers?

Research in recent years though has shown us some depressing figures; Sam Sims and Becky Allen point out that the attainment gap between the most affluent quartile and the bottom, least affluent quartile, has remained unchanged since the 1950s.[1] Indeed 17% of students are still said to be functionally illiterate by the time they leave school. It seems then that little has changed since my dad’s days.

Despite my personal experiences, I do not claim to be anything like an expert in this field. However, having read around the topic, pondered the implications for my classroom and trialled some different strategies over the last few years I have come up with some approaches which I use with my classes to try to erase some of the problems this group of students’ experience educationally.

1. Curriculum Design

The work of Christine Counsell & Mary Myatt have been influential in my curriculum design. Counsell especially seems to regards education as a social justice issue and the need to ensure that all students are being provided with the core knowledge which will lead them on to succeed. This is something which resonates with me when I talk to students, as even those identified as having been really successful at primary school, demonstrate a very limited knowledge of, not only my subject, but a range of topics. General and specific knowledge can be very limited and very limiting.

When I am thinking about the lessons I am going to deliver I think carefully about what I need all students to know. I think carefully about what knowledge in Year 7 will link to knowledge in Year 8, 9, KS4 and beyond. What will enable them to think really deeply about a range of topics? After all, as David Didau, Dan Willingham and others often tell us, if they have nothing to think about then they quite simply can’t think about it. I need to furnish them with the knowledge they need to do this effectively.

I also consider what links I can make across their learning, weaving back and forth to explore themes and ideas, exploring how we can use syntactical conventions of an author in our own writing and how we can use our wider understanding of genre and form to inform new understanding.

I spend a lot of time checking that students have a good grasp of the core information required for that unit and the others that will follow, but I also pay attention to the other aspects of the curriculum. Often my students’ experiences are limited and so I jump on opportunities to extend this where I can. As a result, my Year 11 group have seen not one but two different productions of Jekyll and Hyde, have watched an RSC production of Macbeth, beamed in to the school live from Stratford, and have had the opportunity to hear poets discuss and read their work live. Many have never been to the theatre, many have never spoken to an author, but now many have seen how the details of our curriculum manifest themselves in the world beyond GCSE and exam grades. 

2. Pedagogy

 What I teach is only part of the puzzle. I could have the most amazing curriculum offer but it is going to have little value to my students if I only teach it and they don’t actually learn it.

I have been one of those teachers over the years bemoaning the fact that somehow, despite having taught it five times, the students still don’t seem to know where to put a comma. I have also been one of those teachers over the years who has sometimes allowed them to ‘discover’ where that comma goes, rather than simply telling or showing them.

I have spent a lot of time reflecting on my teaching approaches and I now very much focus on my ability to instruct. Dylan William found that research ‘consistently shows that the quality of instruction, which in turn depends on the knowledge, skills and dispositions of teachers, is a powerful determinant of pupil learning.’[2] He also found that the research showed ‘good teachers seem to have a disproportionately strong impact on pupils from disadvantaged homes’. [3] In order to really make a difference to my disadvantaged students I needed to ensure that I am giving them the best possible instruction available from me.

Hinge questions are a key feature, used to check understanding of essential knowledge, ensuring that all students are in the right place before I move on. There is a greater emphasis on recap, with students encouraged to make links to prior learning, to build schema across topics and to focus on key ideas so that learning genuinely sticks with them beyond the next five minutes.

I also use a lot more modelling. I tended to assume that students would know what good writing would look like from their experiences already. I read a lot as a child despite my humble beginnings, so presumed they would too. This is definitely not the case and that means I need to show them, not just the work of authors, but how we can craft this as writers ourselves too.

S.L.O.P (Shed Loads of Practise), is something both Bob Pritchard and Adam Boxer have written about, is also important to my students. They need to work on how they apply their knowledge once I have checked they have remembered it, and they get lots and lots of opportunities to do this, provided with various degrees of scaffolds and independence. 200 word challenges are a key feature at KS3, where each week they get a chance to hone and craft their writing, planning, writing, proof reading, editing and sharing their practice pieces. This helps to build their resilience too as sometimes things go well and well, sometimes they don’t, as every writer would admit.

3. Student Attitude

So far, so good, but one of the biggest issues I encounter is the student attitude to learning. In a world where employment is not always a given, where students are carers for siblings or parents, where sometimes they are coming into school hungry, learning is not on the top of their list of priorities. I can’t blame them for that. But nor can I address those issues in my classroom. I can however, work on providing them with tools to take beyond my class.

Metacognition is something which I have written about previously and have seen this yield some excellent results. The EEF toolkit identifies metacognition and self-regulation as low cost, high impact strategy which can produce gains of 7+ months. Again, as with research into effective instruction, disadvantaged students seem to gain from this disproportionally to their peers. Often I seem students from some of the most challenging backgrounds having low resilience when it comes to their learning; a lot of their energy seems to be directed in being resilient in their everyday lives with little left for school. Sometimes they have experienced a lot of failure in their early years, caused by gaps in knowledge, caused by poor attendance or having not retained a key aspect of learning, and they simply don’t have the tools to deal with this.  Teaching aspects of metacognition and showing them how to use this information to self-regulate enables them to take greater control of their learning. As a result, they are able to identify where their gaps may be and therefore can find ways to address them.

This is invaluable when it comes to revision and knowing how to tackle this and this is also something I teach them to do. I use the Dunlosky research to find the best ways to do this and try to take the guess work out of it, by providing them with structured tasks.

Ultimately the more success students feel they are having the better their attitude to learning becomes. We all enjoy a sense of achievement and if the work is pitched correctly (challenging but not completely out of reach) then motivation increases. I make sure that success is pointed out to my classes, as many of us, myself included, don’t find it easy to see when we have done well. It is important to know when you are heading in the right direction and you can’t help but smile when you see a job well done.

4. Know their barriers

I consider myself lucky in many ways with my subject choice. It is a subject I genuinely love, but it also means that I have a higher contact ratio with my students that in non-core subjects. I see them, in some cases, more than twice as much as the foundation subjects; 10 times a fortnight for one year groups. This means I know my students, really, really well.

By ‘know’ them I mean a number of things. I know where their gaps in knowledge are (my pedagogical approach and curriculum design has helped with that). I know what they can do and I know when they are likely to struggle based on their previous work. I can anticipate where their misconceptions may come in, both as a class and as individuals.

I also ‘know’ them. I know who loves to read. I know who loves Rugby. I know who is a real Doctor Who fan. I also know who is having a difficult time with their mum or who has had an argument with their best friend. That doesn’t mean that they come and tell me all of this, although some do, but I make mental notes of things I see happening around the school, I speak to other teachers, especially tutors, read emails and notes related to them and look at details from the SEND team which come my way.

I find my students genuinely interesting and retain lots of information about both their learning and who they are as people. I know who my PP are in the class, but also know that there might be others in the room experiencing a similar level of disadvantage, either long term or temporarily. Like all of my students, the PP group are diverse and have very different experiences they bring into the room. I have PP students who are living in temporary accommodation and are worried about their parents’ mental health, but I also have PP students who take ballet lessons and play piano to grade 9. It is not simple or clear cut, but we need to know as much as possible in order to ensure that we can support them to get over any of the barriers that exist for them.

However, this awareness doesn’t give them an easy ride in my class, which brings me to my final point:

5. Expectations, expectations, expectations

Regardless of background I want all of my students to succeed. Therefore, they all get the same diet in my class. The same curriculum, the same challenges, the same, very high, expectations of work and behaviour. I don’t let students off the hook. I may give different levels of support to get there but I am aiming for them ALL to get there. Last term one KS3 class studied, in part, three different Shakespeare plays as a link to the work on relationship poems we were looking. It doesn’t matter that this is a mixed ability group, with a range of SEND, PP and other behavioural issues, we all were studying them. Interesting this was often the time when the class were most focused and engaged. They liked the challenge presented to them.

Behaviour expectations don’t get watered down either. We are in my classroom to learn and that is what we are doing. I will not accept disruption any more than I will accept poor quality work. Anything else would be doing all of my students a disservice.

Final thoughts

I don’t claim for a second that I have ‘fixed’ the disadvantage gap in my classroom. If I were to do that it is likely I would have many people knocking on my door looking for advice. Closing this gap, I believe, is going to take something more of a political and cultural change. As I said before, I can’t mitigate for the effects of long term hunger or the anxiety caused by not being sure where you are going to be sleeping tonight. All I can aim to do is to give them the best possible education in my classroom, an interest in learning and the world around them, and as many tools as possible to be able to be the best that they can be.

The twist of course is this – if I do all of the above then it is not only the ‘disadvantaged’ group who will benefit. It is all of the students who come into my room. Good teaching will benefit everyone, regardless of background, gender or race.


[1] Sam Sims and Becky Allen The Teacher Gap, p.2

[2] Dylan William Creating the Schools Our Children Need p.3

[3] Ibid, p.3

Teach Like Nobody’s Watching is available for pre-order now!

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