19 Dec Part 2: Bridging the Disadvantage Chasm.
In my last post I tried to illustrate the chasm that separates our most advantaged from our most disadvantaged students; students in the same community, side by side in the classroom, yet living worlds apart. Every day brings reminders of that chasm in one form or another. The question is – what can we do about it? The structural roots of inequality lie in the domain of economics and politics; it’s not realistic for schools to be tasked with tackling inequality at the source. Whilst schools have a role to play in the wider process of social change, the timescale is too great to have an impact on an individual child during the time they are at school. We have to work on the basis that the chasm of disadvantage is an embedded feature of our community and of an individual student’s life for the foreseeable future.
In writing this, I’m not remotely suggesting that I have The Answer or that we have all of this completely sorted in my school. This is just an attempt to sketch out where I think the solutions might be found; this is our direction of travel. Here is the most basic way to express it:
‘Ambition for All’. Make this an explicit mission. Inclusion means having high expectations and high hopes for everyone.
Community: Create an inclusive community where everyone belongs, is known, nurtured and celebrated.
Academic Learning: Deliver a broad but strongly academic curriculum where teachers teach well in a disciplined environment with high expectations.
To a great extent, if we’re successful in delivering on those three dimensions of school life, focusing on them explicitly and relentlessly, we’ll be bridging the disadvantage chasm as well as a school ever can. Another dimension is the role of leadership within the school – but that’s for another post. Community, learning and leadership are the three pillars that need to underpin all that we do. There are also two important initial considerations that may seem counter-intuitive:
Firstly, narrowing gaps in comparative data terms is a false premise. As I’ve written elsewhere, I don’t think it is helpful to measure gaps in terms of learning outcomes and then to seek to narrow them. This is because many initiatives benefit everyone and, given that the chasm is real, ongoing divergence is more or less inevitable; the only way for real narrowing to occur is for the most advantaged to fall back – and that’s untenable as a goal. The gap we need to focus on is the one between each individual student’s default path and the most aspirational one we can create for them and with them.
Secondly, possibly the most important priority is to make the school as successful as possible for the most advantaged students. The school needs to deliver for everyone and the students and parents with the greatest capacity to support, champion, lead and contribute are those with the greatest initial advantages. We need them to feel that the school works for them; that they made the right choice; that they’re getting as good an education as they could get anywhere. We also need to set the highest possible expectations for every student; if we’re doing that well, that will include the most advantaged. They will tell us if we’re not doing as well as we could be – we need their feedback; their input. An old post ‘gifted and talented provision: a total philosophy‘ sets these ideas out. It’s the place to start with bridging the disadvantage gap.
Some of the details:
Academic learning: we need to be serious about engaging every student in learning characterised by academic rigour; that’s got to be the goal. The belief that engagement is a product of learning (not the other way around) is vital. To misunderstand this is to create a soft and soggy bridge to nowhere. We need to work on a framework for teaching and learning to deliver the required rigour and provide the resources needed to allow all students to access academic learning in school and beyond. Investment in resources is a key area; advantaged students will acquire what they need – the most disadvantaged will rely on the school completely.
Cultural Capital: I’m increasingly persuaded that explicit knowledge goals are essential in this process. We need to decide and communicate the specific elements of knowledge we want our students to acquire. If we want all students to have read specific books, to know some poems off by heart, to know the key people in national politics, be able to label a map of Europe or Africa, to list the English monarchs in sequence and know the names and symbols of the most common chemical elements – we need to say so. The acquisition of cultural capital can’t be left to chance or regarded as a by-product. For the most disadvantaged students, it needs to be mapped out explicitly and delivered.
Personal Development: In the same way, there are activities and enrichment opportunities that we know facilitate the personal development of young people. Let’s not talk in nebulous terms about developing character, resilience and leadership skills; let’s make sure that every child has a core entitlement of opportunities that actually deliver these things. A strongly academic curriculum needs to regarded as part of this; not separate. But where the most advantaged students volunteer for DofE, the orchestra and the school council, we need to lead others down that path; they won’t go alone because they don’t think it belongs to them.
Behaviour for Learning: Where students grow up in an environment where the boundaries are weak, unclear or inconsistent, we need to provide that for them. Impeccable behaviour as a goal for all students is a powerful lever. However, day to day, for many highly disadvantaged students, this is a challenge; it creates stress in and around the school. We need to anticipate that, working proactively to support students and families who kick against the system to show them how to work with it. We also need to work with staff; they need to be given explicit support and care to empower them to challenge disruptive behaviours and those young people who can become angry and emotional. Cultivating the spirit of all being in it together is essential.
At the sharp end of the system, it’s vital to have a buffer zone between inclusion and exclusion. There is a subtle difference between being consistent and being rigid; so rigid that exclusion is inevitable. That’s the line we walk every day. Our Behaviour Support Centre supports us in keeping that line as clear as possible for the majority of students. Our challenge is to go further to link the work of the BSC more closely to the wider curriculum so that re-intregation works even better. Beyond the school, as I describe here, the system is patchy and needs a strong community orientation for us to work with partners, playing our part in an inclusive system. There simply aren’t enough resources in this area.
Rhetoric and Reading: At HGS we’re working hard on two key strands of the curriculum: rhetoric and reading. The most disadvantaged students often struggle in both of these areas; they find reading more challenging than others and they are less confident with expressing their ideas in speech. Our reading strategy is currently focused on the very weakest readers; we need to go further to deliver a whole-school structure that delivers planned reading across the curriculum every day. Our rhetoric roadmap has now been produced; we have a plan of structured speech events for all students in all years across all subjects every half-term. This will ensure that the most disadvantaged students have regular opportunities to build their confidence with a range of speech modes.
Community Spirit: The goal to create a community that fosters a sense of belonging; that is nurturing and celebratory – needs to be planned for explicitly. In terms of celebration, I think we place too much pressure on the large-scale events – assemblies and such – to deliver this. Physically coming together is vital; it’s a part of it. But we can’t publicly reward and acknowledge all students in a meaningful way and, to some extent, some students see public showcasing as alienating; again, it can be seen as belonging to the other kids. We also need this to be part of the culture of the classroom. I want all lessons to focus more explicitly on acknowledging participation, persistence, progress and success. It should feel good to be there; you should feel you belong and are valued in any environment – and that’s not easy sometimes, if the pressure is on. Public events need to reflect the community and include diverse voices at the same time as modelling excellence and ambition; that needs to be managed carefully.
Pastoral Structures: In loco parentis needs to have real meaning. At HGS we have invested in this to a high level. Every year group has a non-teaching Head of Year, a Director of Studies ( on a TLR) and an Assistant Head to lead the team, including the form tutors. We have a large team of people working full time on behaviour and attendance support. We pride ourselves on knowing the students and in devoting time to parental engagement. We give students shoes to wear if they don’t have them; we work hard every day to sort out the minutiae of their troubled, complicated lives. And still, there’s a sense that we could do more. The chasm of disadvantage manifests itself as very real when parents are hard to reach; when they don’t pick up the phone or turn up to meetings. I think we need to look at recruiting more mentors; more people who work (voluntarily?) to support individuals week to week. Imagine if we have 50 or 100 students with a personal mentor who met them every week – I think that could make a difference; students who don’t have adult learning-orientated role models at home.
Curriculum Structures: I’m a firm believer that every child should have a broad, academic, arts-rich curriculum. Our model is described here. I don’t believe in soft options or alternative pathways. To me that reinforces the chasm; it doesn’t bridge it. We do run a nurture group in Year 7 but beyond that, everyone gets everything. There’s a risk that any withdrawal process holds students back through missing the regular lesson. However, currently we’re exploring the possibilities of running some additional short-term intervention groups for students who have specific issues with learning and/or behaviour. We’re also working to develop our extended day provision. We offer a Study Centre facility up to 5pm every day; the challenge is to get the most disadvantaged students to use it without regarding attendance as a detention! That’s the paradox we often face – those who need it the most, use it the least and compulsion can be alienating. We’re working on it!
Joined up working: Very broadly, a key to building the bridge is to link everything that we do together. Sometimes our efforts are not sufficiently aligned: SEND, behaviour, curriculum, pastoral invention – we can all be doing things but they need to link up better. We also need to work more closely with external agencies. The online e-CAF referral forms are so long, it puts people off! But, once you get education and social care professionals working together, the wrap-around support for families is so much better. There are resource constraints – and that’s another challenge!
Do all these things add up to a bridge? We’ve got to hope they do. The pupil premium goes some way to helping us deliver on these things- although I’ll never accept that this is new money. It’s just THE money. And, believe me, we’re deeply committed to the mission regardless. Let’s just be more honest about the scale of the chasm we’re trying to bridge.