Vulnerable children and young people


Not only do schools offer educational support to learners and their parents and carers but, as a universal service, schools can be the first port of call when children, young people and their families need additional help and support. Schools offer help to vulnerable pupils through many activities (such as breakfast clubs, or learning support interventions) and via their multi-agency work with others (such as behaviour support teams, social workers, educational psychologists and many more). Research can help you to find out about your learners’ needs and the most effective ways to meet them.

Now that schools receive pupil premium funding to help their disadvantaged learners, deciding what to spend the resource on is a key responsibility for schools. The Department for Education’s intention is that this resource will help close the attainment gap between disadvantaged learners and their peers. Using research can help you to get maximum ‘bang for your buck’.

What could I research?

Research with vulnerable groups and disadvantaged learners has long been a priority for governments, local authorities and individual schools (and networks). There are many possible topics to research - here are some ideas:

What does attainment data tell you about where pupil premium funds should be spent?   Where does the wider school community think pupil premium funding should be allocated?   How can parents be encouraged to engage with school life and their children's learning?
How effective is your school's partnership working with other agencies? How could it be improved?  

Research ideas

  Who are the disadvantaged groups within your school?
How can they be better supported to achieve?
Has an intervention, strategy or approach achieved its desired aims?   Do all staff know to effectively support vulnerable/disadvantaged learners within your school?
Is additional training required?

What research design should I use?

Here are some things you will need to consider when designing your research project.


You will need to consider who to include in your research. For research into vulnerable and disadvantaged groups you may choose to engage school staff; learners; parents/carers; partners working with schools (e.g. multi-agency teams, behaviour support workers, social workers etc); governors and/or the wider community. Some groups may be harder to engage than others (e.g. parents).



You could apply almost any method to researching vulnerable groups and disadvantaged learners, depending on your research question. For example, you could:

  • look at attainment data to identify who the struggling learners are
  • send a survey to parents (although responses rates are often very low)
  • invite parents to a focus group to find out how the school could support them better
  • observe pupils during an intervention or club
  • ask teachers/classroom assistants how their learners are progressing
  • survey staff to ascertain their knowledge and skills to identifying and helping vulnerable learners – for example, are they all aware of your child protection procedures and who your designated teacher is?
You may need to make additional ethical considerations when undertaking research in this area.


Measuring change

When evaluating a change (for example of an intervention, strategy or new approach), it is best practice to adopt a ‘before’ and ‘after’ assessment. This can be done by asking key stakeholders, at the outset, about their hopes, aspirations and intentions and again at the end, the extent to which these aims were realised and what has been the resulting impact? It is not always possible to ask before (pre) and after (post) questions, in which case, just do so afterwards – this way you can learn from their experiences and implement relevant changes.

Relevant research and guidance

NFER has carried out a great deal of research into supporting vulnerable young people.
Here are links to some of our publications.

Spending priorities for the Pupil Premium

School funding and the Pupil Premium

NFER evidence on access and achievement of children in poverty in England

How do we help ‘unseen’ children access achievement?

The impact of the Summer Schools Programme on pupils

Narrowing the gap in outcomes for vulnerable groups

Alternative Provision for Young People with Special Educational Needs

What Works in Supporting Children and Young People to Overcome Persistent Poverty? A Review of UK and International Literature

You may also find some of these organisations’ publications useful:


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