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Bradford Research School: Disadvantage: What does it mean?

Posted 13th September 2023

At Dixons, we ask the question: Why do we exist?

The answer is easy – to challenge educational and social disadvantage in the North.

In this blog, we ask one more question: What does disadvantage mean?

But it’s a question with lots of different answers and interpretations.

What does disadvantage mean… to the DfE?

The Pupil Premium grant is designed to ‘improve educational outcomes for disadvantaged pupils in state-funded schools in England.’

The criteria for pupil premium funding, and therefore the DfE definition of disadvantage:

  • pupils who are recorded as eligible for free school meals, or have been recorded as eligible in the past 6 years, including eligible children of families who have no recourse to public funds (NRPF)
  • children looked after by local authorities, referred to as looked-after children
  • children previously looked after by a local authority or other state care, referred to as previously looked-after children

While the definition is clear, this doesn't mean that it is helpful in telling us how best to support these pupils. Not least, because what constitutes 'these pupils' is always in flux. For example, according to the NFER, in their Investigating the Changing Landscape of Pupil Disadvantage report, the pupils who became FSM eligible in January 2021 were more likely to:

  • be from an ethnic minority group
  • have English as an additional language
  • have slightly higher prior attainment compared to those who were already FSM eligible, but lower prior attainment than those who were not eligible for FSM.

What does disadvantage mean… in our context?

While it is helpful to understand the general term and the broad context, it’s far more important to know what these terms mean for us. And we need to look at a contextual definition.

Marc Rowland, in this comprehensive blog for Unity research School, writes about how we can do this:

1) How does disadvantage impact on pupils’ learning (in the individual school context)?
2) What are the *controllable* factors impacting on disadvantaged pupils’ learning?
3) What factors are MOST preventing disadvantaged pupils from thriving in the classroom and in wider school life?

Context will help us to understand what the specific problems are, but they will also help us with tailored solutions.

Schools and B have both identified homework as a particular barrier. They read in the EEF Teaching and Learning Toolkit that “surveys in England suggest that pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to have a quiet working space, are less likely to have access to a device suitable for learning or a stable internet connection and may receive less parental support to complete homework and develop effective learning habits.”

School A organises a fully-resourced homework club in an IT lab to help mitigate some of these challenges. However, School B is a rural school and the majority of pupils take the bus to get there so cannot easily use the same approach. They instead focus on working with parents to support at home.

At Dixons, with schools now in Bradford, Leeds, Manchester and Liverpool, we need to understand that disadvantage will manifest in different ways in these different contexts. And even if we look at Dixons McMillan and Dixons Trinity, which sit at different ends of the same street, there will be unique context-based challenges and solutions.

Key in solving these problems is building a good picture using evidence. The EEF Guide to the Pupil Premium suggests the following:

  • Attendance data and levels of persistent absence;
  • Teacher feedback on pupils’ levels of engagement and participation;
  • Behaviour incidences and exclusions data;
  • Information on wellbeing, mental health and safeguarding;
  • Access to technology and curricular materials.

The Gathering and Interpreting Data tool can also be helpful in working out priorities.

[image of Gathering Data tool here]

The ‘label’ of disadvantage can come with assumptions, and we must be careful not to make those. And we must also consider that fact that there are those who are not receiving pupil premium funding who may well be just as ‘disadvantaged’ as their peers. See this series of blogs from Becky Allen on the complexity of this issue: The Pupil Premium is not Working

What does disadvantage mean… for our teachers?

School leaders should certainly communicate what disadvantage means within their context. There should be a very clear and shared understanding of this, and what it means within the school. The pupil premium strategy document should be shared beyond the website.

But the clearest message that we can give teachers is that ‘high quality teaching is the most important lever schools have to improve pupil attainment, including for disadvantaged pupils.’ (EEF, Pupil Premium Evidence Brief). And that is one of the most important drivers for us in our Trust: how we can support teachers to be the best they can be and create an environment in which they – and our students – flourish.

Like much terminology in schools, the word disadvantage can be interpreted differently, can have different connotations, can be too generic or too specific, but if we are clear within our schools what we mean when we talk about disadvantage, then we are more likely to make a difference for these pupils.