What works for raising the achievement of disadvantaged pupils?

What does the research tell us about effective strategies for narrowing the gaps? Where might you focus your pupil premium spend? Findings from useful reports

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Liz Worthen is the head of content at Optimus Education. Starting her career as a secondary school English teacher, Liz has since worked in education resource and CPD programme management. She has a particular interest in workforce development...

Reports such as the DfE's Supporting the attainment of disadvantaged pupils share findings from research into differences between schools in the performance of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds.

What are schools that have been successful in narrowing gaps doing compared to less successful schools? What can we learn about tackling disadvantage?

1. There's no single, quick-fix solution

The DfE's 'Supporting the attainment of disadvantaged pupils' survey found that on average, schools had used 18 strategies since 2011 (when pupil premium funding was introduced). The most popular strategies focused on teaching and learning.

Leaders in schools that were more successful in raising the attainment of disadvantaged pupils said that there was no single intervention that had led to success. Implementing strategies in greater depth and paying attention to detail seemed to be more significant.

These leaders also said that it had taken around three to five years to see the impact of changes introduced on pupil results.

2. Treat pupils as individuals

The DfE report stresses the importance of treating pupils as individuals rather than providing generic support. 

Staff in more successful schools were more likely to:

  • identify the barriers to learning for each individual pupil
  • select or devise interventions which were appropriate to those individual needs
  • put effort into supporting individual pupils
  • identify issues early (rather than waiting for crunch time at the end of a key stage).

Lambeth Council’s report Raising the Achievement of White Working Class Pupils echoes this finding and highlights the importance of data. Schools who were more successful in raising achievement had a focus on tracking and monitoring individual pupil progress:

‘…in these schools they realise the potential of every pupil. They know the data and they identified the percentages as actual children. Real children and real progress matters to them and they translate numbers into action. They use data effectively for school self‐evaluation and tracking pupil performance.’

3. Have high expectations

This is the top recommendation from ‘Supporting the attainment of disadvantaged pupils’ and, along with addressing attendance and behaviour, forms the basic building block for raising attainment.

Don’t assume that the reason disadvantaged pupils have lower attainment is due to a lack of resources and support at home. Be wary of focusing pupil premium funds on compensating for poverty or providing access to resources (e.g. subsidising equipment, uniform and trips; providing computer access) at the expense of promoting attainment.

‘I am convinced that the best pastoral care for students from socio-economically deprived backgrounds is a good set of examination results.’

John Tomsett, headteacher, This much I know about what Year 7 pupils’ parents really worry about

Similarly, ‘Raising the achievement of white working class pupils’ calls for leaders who:

  • promote a culture of high achievement
  • prioritise teaching and learning
  • provide role models for the communities they serve
  • have a strong commitment to raising achievement.

The August 2018 DfE report, School culture and practice: supporting disadvantaged pupils re-affirms the importance of culture, expectations and the belief that school can make a difference.

‘High-performing primaries appeared to be particularly attentive to raising disadvantaged pupils’ attainment, and displayed particularly high levels of shared staff purpose, compared to lower-performing primaries. Meanwhile, high-performing schools across both phases tended to: 

  • hold particularly high expectations that tended to have a more tangible influence on teacher practice 
  • engender particularly positive relationships between staff, parents and pupils 
  • have greater conviction that their practices were enough to ‘make a difference’ with disadvantaged pupils 
  • respond positively to pupils’ aspirational goals and clearly structure their practice around them.’

For more on this report, see Inside the black box: how high-performing schools create a positive culture.

4. Self-belief matters too

The Sutton Trust’s report Believing in Better explores the influence of young people’s aspirations, their beliefs about their ability and their school experiences in shaping A level outcomes at 18.

The research found that ‘academic self-concept’ – a student’s beliefs about their academic performance and abilities – plays a significant part in A level outcomes, ‘over and beyond the important influence of background’.

  • Students who had a stronger belief in their own abilities in English and maths at age 13/14 were twice as likely to go on to take three or more A-levels than those with less favourable views of their own abilities.
  • Students with a stronger belief in their own abilities in Year 11 (aged 15 to 16) were almost four times more likely to go on to take three or more A-levels than students with a weaker belief.

The impact of self-belief is also mentioned in the Social Mobility Commission’s report Downward mobility and opportunity hoarding, which identifies locus of control as an influencing factor.

‘In terms of social and emotional skills, early low attainers are found to have lower self-esteem and are less likely to have a sense that they are in control of their own destiny’, whereas ‘a high locus of control could result in individuals being prepared to put more effort into study or work’.

5. Do your homework

The ‘Believing in Better’ report links good homework habits and the home learning environment with self-belief and better academic outcomes.

Spending 2-3 hours a night on homework in Year 9 almost tripled the likelihood that a student believed getting a university degree was very important.

The report recommends:

  • providing support to help students engage in self-directed study
  • making sure students do sufficient homework
  • encouraging students to read more books.

6. Timetable carefully

The Sutton Trust’s interim report Improving the impact of teachers on pupil achievement in the UK highlights the difference that an effective teacher makes, particularly for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds:

…’over a school year, these pupils gain 1.5 years’ worth of learning with very effective teachers, compared with 0.5 years with poorly performing teachers. In other words, for poor pupils the difference between a good teacher and a bad teacher is a whole year’s learning.’

If high quality teaching is a key factor in raising attainment, then are you thinking carefully about who is teaching your disadvantaged pupils?

For example:

  • do pupil premium students feature in timetabling discussions?
  • if you set by ability, do you find that your lower sets have a disproportionate number of disadvantaged pupils? And if so, who teachers those sets?
  • do you try and avoid split classes for vulnerable groups?
  • are you supporting early intervention by ensuring good teaching early in the key stage, rather than just focusing on Year 6 or Year 11?

In his book Narrowing the Attainment Gap, one of Daniel Sobel's 'key takeaways' urges caution around the use of setting. If schools are setting pupils, he recommends basing decisions on multiple tests, spaced out over a period of months, rather than assigning children to sets on the basis of one test. 

Rigorous setting and streaming policies tend to hurt disadvantaged pupils and should be avoided – especially at younger ages when attitudes to learning and educational aspiration are more likely to be embedded. 

Daniel Sobel, Narrowing the Attainment Gap: a Handbook for Schools 

7. Teach vocabulary

'Children who are behind in language development at age five are six times less likely to reach the expected standard in English at age eleven, and 11 times less likely to achieve the expected level in maths' (Unlocking Talent, Fulfilling Potential: A plan for improving social mobility through education). 

'Many children hear five times as many words in their homes as their peers, seeing a ‘vocabulary gap’ develop quickly in the earliest years, before school even starts' (Alex Quigley, The early vocabulary advantage). 

Justin Greening's tenure as education secretary may be over, but her 'Unlocking Talent, Fulfilling Potential' plan identified closing the 'word gap' in the early years as a key target. 

The explicit teaching of vocabulary, at any age, using tools such as the Frayer Model, isn't just for EAL pupils. See the webinar EAL teaching - ways to build vocabulary for more ideas.  

Food for thought: is social mobility the right way to go?

For some other perspectives on the social mobility agenda, see Debra Kidd’s blog post Class confusion and Sonia Blandford's article We must end this obsession with working class gentrification.

They question the implicit assumption that being 'working class' is something to escape from and that everyone should aspire to a place at university and within the middle classes. 

Research reports

Believing in better: how aspirations and academic self concept shape young people’s outcomes (The Sutton Trust, June 2016)

Downward mobility, opportunity hoarding and the ‘glass floor’ (Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, June 2015)

Improving the impact of teachers on pupil achievement in the UK – interim findings (The Sutton Trust, September 2011)

Raising the achievement of white working class pupils: barriers and school strategies (London Borough of Lambeth, May 2014)

School culture and practice: supporting disadvantaged pupils (DfE, August 2018)

Supporting the attainment of disadvantaged pupils: articulating success and good practice (DfE, November 2015)

Unlocking Talent, Fulfilling Potential: A plan for improving social mobility through education (DfE, December 2017)

This article draws on reports and issues highlighted in Ruth Powley's workshop on the progress of disadvantaged students at the January 2018 conference Data Use & Assessment to Support Progress

Last Updated: 
14 Nov 2018