We need a rethink on disadvantaged students

Claire Heald, Executive Principal at Jane Austen College, has written this blog for us…

In 2016, 27.7% of pupils at the end of key stage 4 were disadvantaged. This is almost a third of our students, and the figure is rising.[1] Yet again, in 2016, attainment for these students was lower compared to other students, on every headlines measure.

Looking at the gap index (the best measure to use, in light of changing headline measures and methodologies) whilst the attainment gap has narrowed, it still remains, and has not narrowed significantly since 2011.

By the time they reach 16, the gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers is 19.3 months. [2] And the number of disadvantaged students getting into the UK’s top universities is declining.[3]

So why is this? And what should we be doing about it?

As any school leader or teacher will know, conversations about pupil premium students happen regularly in our schools. Outcomes for disadvantaged students, our pupil premium students are at the heart of the Ofsted framework. Most schools frequently analyse how their pupil premium students are achieving, putting intervention plans in place and identifying them on all seating plans. We spend a huge amount of time talking about disadvantaged students and what we are doing for them. Through the pupil premium, schools also receive additional funding to support them.

So why does this continue to be such an issue in our schools?

I feel we have reached a point where the way that disadvantaged students are so heavily targeted has become a barrier in itself to actually achieving real change for these students. I completely understand why schools do this – creating extensive intervention programmes for these students, developing raising achievement plans for them, implementing motivational rewards strategies to enthuse them. I’ve done all of that myself. But I do believe that it’s time for a re-think.

Over time, whilst we do see improvements and the gap appears to narrow, the fact is, there is still a major issue. And whilst in many cases we might help a student to gain a slightly higher exam grade in their GCSEs, how consistently do we achieve genuine social mobility, really widening opportunities and horizons for these students and equipping them to progress to further education, university or beyond?

And actually, is our mistake to see these students as ‘different’ and therefore assume that we need to do something ‘different’ for these students?

I lead a school in Norfolk, an area which has been recognised by the department for education as a ‘coldspot’ for social mobility, leading to Norwich being designated as one of 12 ‘opportunity areas’ across the country. And I’ve been a senior leader in ‘turn-around’ schools, with high levels of disadvantaged students. My experience and research has shown me that if we are going to address the issue in an meaningful and significant way we need our schools to completely review their whole school vision, ethos and curriculum. Otherwise we are just papering over the cracks and perpetuating an ineffective ‘last minute intervention’ culture.

In 2014 I was fortunate enough to be able to open a free school and social mobility was at the heart of our application. Not for one second am I suggesting that our way is the only way to achieve this, but I think the point is that schools do have to decide what their effective strategy is going to be and they do have to have a strategy.

At Jane Austen College, our entire school day is built around supporting disadvantaged and vulnerable students and ensuring opportunities for all. Students do not complete homework at home, where their homelife may not offer the support and structure they need to complete homework well. Instead students stay at school longer and complete independent study as part of the day. After completing their independent study students stay until 5.30 taking part in a range of compulsory electives. They might play football, sing in the choir, join the debating society, learn an instrument or study Ancient Greek. The choice is theirs, but the point is, all students regardless of background have these opportunities.

We immerse our students in culture: ensuring all students go to the theatre, visit art galleries, appreciate listening to music. In fact, our students perform for each other every week on a Friday lunchtime, in their own ‘student led’ concert series.

We are an English specialist school and students are immersed in literature in a number of ways. Eliot, Shakespeare, Thackeray, Bronte and Chaucer are the names of our pastoral houses and all students take part in our shared reading programme, reading literary heritage texts collectively twice a week. This has allowed us to create our own internal literary canon so that students can talk about books and the ideas in them, knowing everyone else will have read then too. The texts are carefully chosen and sequenced to enable students to access them and develop a love of stories and reading.

Curriculum is key to this of course. More than any of our students, our disadvantaged students absolutely need to have access to a curriculum that is built on powerful knowledge. This is critical if we are to achieve true, sustainable social mobility. But that core knowledge curriculum will only do its job when implemented alongside a strong school ethos and culture, driven by a social mobility agenda.

Our aim has been to ‘usualise’ scholarship, rich cultural experiences and high academic standards so that it becomes an everyday part of our students lives, regardless of background. We expect just as much from our disadvantaged students, as we do from all of our students. Our expectations are never lowered.

In two year’s time our students will sit their GCSEs. Will we still have to put intervention in place for some students when it comes to year 11? Perhaps in exceptional circumstances. But it will be the wider school vision and whole school strategy, experienced over five years of schooling, that will really have helped our disadvantaged students succeed.

In most schools across the country, teachers are working extremely hard to support disadvantaged students. That’s clear – however I would urge schools to consider whether the fact that they are doing ‘something’ is stopping them from doing the ‘right thing’.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of PTE or its employees.

[1] ‘Revised GCSE and equivalent results in England, 2015 to 2016’, National Statistics, 19 January 2017

[2] Andrews, J., Robinson, D., and Hutchinson, J., 2017. ‘Closing the gap: Trends in Educational Attainment and Disadvantage’, Education Policy Institute.

[3] ‘Performance Indicators: Widening participation of under-represented groups’, 2016. HESA.