Schools that work for everyone: Tackling disadvantage

By Joana Andrade

Thursday 26 January 2017

Tackling education underperformance among disadvantaged young people is a stated aim of the current UK government. But achieving this requires an understanding of what disadvantage is and a way of identifying precisely where it’s found. These are the two topics I’ve covered in my previous posts in this series, timed to coincide with the end of the government’s ‘Schools that work for everyone’ consultation last month, and new NFER research on the impact of disadvantage on maths achievement.

In short, disadvantage is more than simply financial – it is a much broader phenomenon that encompasses social and cultural disadvantage too. And for measuring it, the current Free School Meals (FSM) measure is limited and could be improved upon, drawing on, for example, area level deprivation indices such as the Income Deprivation Affecting Children Index (IDACI) or the OECD’s Economic Social and Cultural Status (ESCS) index.

How can these insights help to inform future policy and practice?

The mechanisms that propagate educational inequality are wide and varied in the way they affect a child’s educational chances. Research has previously shown that differences in cultural and social capital can have repercussions in areas as diverse as use of language by the time children enter school, preferential access to grammar and faith schools, the type of characteristics parents value when choosing schools, the kind of studies children undertake and their access to more prestigious universities, or even the adoption of cultural practices linked to substantial cognitive gains like reading for pleasure.

Successful policy and practice therefore needs to take an approach that is at once broad in its conception of disadvantaged, and narrow in targeting the specific aspects of disadvantage pertinent to particular young people or settings. Indeed, NFER research into the pupil premium has highlighted how important what is done with the extra resources is to the policy’s success. Schools need to be able to identify specific causes of educational disadvantage and take into account that they relate to different aspects of educational capital.

There are teaching methods and strategies that increase the cultural capital of disadvantaged children which have been shown to be effective by the Education Endowment Foundation. These include approaches to familiarising children with practices that are more common amongst educated families, such as the use of computers, internet resources and educational software. Meta-cognitive and self-regulation strategies that teach pupils to think about the process of learning themselves, set goals and monitor their own learning have also been shown to be effective.

Initiatives that intervene at the level of the community in order to increase the cultural capital of deprived families, like Sure Start and the Full Services Extended Schools (FSES), have also had some degree of success, although this success has been modest and difficult to quantify.

A number of organisations are already recognising the need to consider these different aspects of educational capital. The Fair Education Alliance (FEA) has acknowledged the importance of the social capital in terms of educational equity in a recent collection of essays. The FEA has identified wellbeing, the acquisition of social and emotional skills, mental health, and the engagement of parents and carers as key areas that have been neglected by the educational system but are nevertheless crucial to level the educational playing field.

Save the Children UK has implemented The Families and Schools Together (FAST) programme that aims to increase the social capital of disadvantaged families by bringing together children, parents and schools in a series of after-school activities. Evidence suggests that that the programme improves children’s academic performance, attendance and attitude towards school (this is being tested further in a trial being undertaken by NFER).

In conclusion, better definition and measurement of disadvantage is an important and much needed development in our approach to tackling disadvantage. It is equally critical that this in turn leads to better targeted allocation of resources, and better spending decisions to ensure these resources are deployed in ways that tackle the underlying causes of educational underachievement – particularly over the coming years as a new national funding formula is implemented. Only then will we truly realise a system that works for everyone.